From Recommended to Required: The Need for Neck Guards in the NHL
(pictured: TJ Oshie, forward, wearing a neck guard during the Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders November 2nd, 2023 game)
Historically, changes in sporting regulations and uniforms are often met with opposition. The newest call for change began following the recent events of an England’s Elite Ice Hockey League (“EIHL”) game at the end of October, where former National Hockey League (“NHL”) player Adam Johnson suffered a fatal injury in what was called a “freak accident,” after an opposing player’s skate blade cut Johnson’s throat after a collision.  This tragedy prompted the EIHL to require all players to wear neck guards starting January 1, 2024.
The EIHL accident is just one in hockey’s history of ice skate injuries to the throat. In 2022, 16-year-old Teddy Balkind passed away after suffering a cut to his throat during a high school hockey game. Earlier this year, a team athletic trainer’s quick action provided likely life-saving assistance to West Point hockey player, Eric Huss, following a “severe laceration” by an ice skate to the neck. In the NHL, Richard Zednik was accidentally cut in the throat by a teammate’s errant skate in 2008 and missed the rest of the season recovering, while Buffalo Sabres goaltender, Clint Malarchuk, received 300 stitches after a skate slashed his throat in 1989.
Despite the risk, prior to Johnson’s accident, only two NHL players had worn neck guards, Thomas Plekanec and Wayne Gretzky. Now, players are reconsidering their stance – testing neck guards during practices, warmups, and games. Additionally, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association (“NHLPA”) began discussions for implementing additional safety measures for the league.Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NHL cannot “impose equipment changes without the agreement” of the NHLPA. Accordingly, the NHLPA announced its plan to address the next steps at the upcoming All-Star Game in February 2024.
Purpose of Neck Guards
Neck guards are protective equipment to reduce the potential for injury to the neck or throat from hockey sticks, pucks, or skate blades. Despite their availability and functionality, NHL players remain hesitant to wear them. One NHL equipment manager described players' stubbornness to not wear guards as a result of the league having a “monkey-see, monkey-do” mindset.  Retired player and NHL legend Wayne Gretzky addressed how many young players grow up wearing neck guards, but then decide to not wear them at the professional level. He shared his belief that the Commissioner’s office and NHLPA are likely working to "grandfather in” the requirement for neck guards to shift the future of the league.
History of Gear Changes
The NHL previously “grandfathered” in other equipment requirements for its players. For example, helmets first became mandatory for NHL players entering the league after 1979, and in that year roughly 30% of players didn’t wear a helmet. However, over the next two decades, the number of helmetless players diminished until 1997, when the last helmet-less player Craig MacTavish finally retired.
More recently, the NHL added the requirement of a visor on helmets for incoming players at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season. NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, shared that this mandate required a yearslong education process before passing the mandate on visors. Even now, there are still seven players in the 2023-2024 season who still do not use a visor, including Jamie Benn who temporarily used facial protection after an injury last season before quickly returning to playing visorless.
Additionally, at the start of the 2022 season, the NHL required that players who entered the league after 2019-2020 must wear helmets during warmups. This rule was a less drastic shift as some teams, such as the Florida Panthers, already had a team rule requiring helmets during warmups. Noncompliance with this rule is often addressed by the league with fines. For example, this year Chicago Blackhawks rookie, Connor Bedard, was fined $2,500 for not wearing a helmet during warmups.
Different Neck Guard Standards
While the NHL mandates some equipment changes like helmets during games and now warmups, others gradually became commonplace without any league requirements. For example, undershirts with cut-resistant wrists, blade-stopping socks, and compression socks are examples of equipment professional players began wearing in the minor leagues and brought with them into the NHL.
However, for neck guards, the differences in American and Canadian players’ upbringing and equipment standards impact how players view wearing additional protective equipment. Hockey Canada requires all players registered in its youth hockey programs to wear a neck guard. Yet, USA Hockey only “recommends” players wear neck guards. In Canadian junior leagues, the Western Hockey League (“WHL”) is the newest to mandate neck guards during on-ice activities for both games and practices. The WHL joins two other Canadian junior leagues, the Ontario Hockey League (“OHL”) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (“QMJHL”) with similar mandates. But in America, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) has no neck guard requirement. This variation highlights that simply where a player grew up playing hockey greatly impacts his/her experience with wearing a neck guard during practice and games.
Since the EIHL accident, many NHL players started testing out neck guards during practice, warmups, and games. Warroad Hockey Co, a Minnesota-based clothing and equipment company founded by Washington Capitals player T.J. Oshie, announced its neck guards were sold out just days after Johnson’s accident. Oshie himself tested the neck guard during the Capitals’ November 2nd game, sharing he chose to do so to “decrease the chance of injury.”
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson promoted the use of neck guards as “a small piece of equipment to hopefully prevent something like that again.” Buffalo Sabres Henri Jokiharju said he had been considering wearing a neck guard after an injury last season but has only begun trying it following recent events. Jokiharju didn’t find any issues wearing the neck guard and simply said, “It’s just about getting used to it.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins organization is the first and only team requiring its AHL and ECHL affiliate teams to wear neck guards following the Johnson accident, but there is no standard in place for its professional team. Commissioner Bettman announced the NHLPA would need to agree before an equipment change is “mandated directly or on a phased-in basis.” After the NHLPA’s announcement that neck guards would be discussed in February, as well as players’ positive response to self-implementing neck guards themselves, it is likely only a matter of time before neck guards are grandfathered in, just like helmets and helmet visors.
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