Neck guards need to be more common in hockey

Feb. 18, 2008

by Jesse Menden

At the very least, you heard about it. If you have the intestinal fortitude, you probably paused for a second to watch it on the local news, ESPN, or YouTube while grimacing.

You know what I’m talking about: that image of Florida Panther Olli Jokinen’s skate coming up and slashing the neck of teammate Richard Zednik and nicking open his carotid artery, spilling blood all over the ice and sending him to the hospital for emergency surgery.

It was a gruesome scene, and one that parents might cite for years as one of the reasons why their children will never play hockey. But an injury of that nature is easily preventable, and steps to prevent neck injuries have been in place for years in this area.

District 5, the governing body for Minnesota Hockey in this area, which stretches from Willmar to Buffalo, north to Monticello and down to Hutchinson, has mandated that all players, whether in practice, scrimmage, or in a game, must wear a manufactured neck guard at all times, even in games outside of the district.

And this rule is taken very seriously. According to the District 5 handbook, for games within the district, a player cannot be on the ice without a neck guard. A second violation results in a game misconduct.

The punishment is even more severe for violating the rule in games outside of the district. A first violation results in a one-week suspension for both the player and coach. A third violation ends in a year-long suspension for both.

The reason why having a rule requiring neck protection is newsworthy is because District 5 is one of only two districts in the entire state that requires neck protection for those who are not goaltenders. Of the 15 districts that make up Minnesota Hockey, District 6 is the only other that requires neck protection.

On top of that, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) and USA Hockey do not require neck protection, either.

After watching those clips of Zednik leaving a streak of blood on the ice as he frantically skates to the bench, it really brings this issue, why more governing bodies and organizations don’t require this rule, to the forefront.

Brian Johnson, the first vice president of District 5 and the head coach of the Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato girls’ varsity team, cites one reason why more hockey players don’t wear neck guards, and in more cases, why they are not required.

“I think a lot of people just think that it is restricting and uncomfortable,” Johnson said.

Another reason Johnson tossed out was hockey is a physical and macho game; neck guards don’t exactly exude a lot of toughness.

There is also the fact that the chances of getting cut by a skate in the neck area are so very minute that many governing bodies don’t think of it as necessary.

However, if you look hard, there are more close calls than you think, especially in the NHL. In addition to the Zednik incident, Minnesota Wild’s Marian Gaborik cut Edmonton’s Ethan Moreau above the eye with his skate, and a referee had a similar incident happen to him – all within a week.

Of course, this type of incident is nothing new. In 1989, Buffalo goaltender Clint Malarchuk had his jugular cut open by a skate.

“It was not that big of a deal the first time because it was a goaltender,” Johnson said, referring to Malarchuk. That is why the latest NHL incident might be catalyst for change.

Johnson said he would not be surprised if governing bodies such as Minnesota Hockey and the MSHSL would start getting pressure to make some changes and require neck protection.

District 5 has the right idea, but when they hand those players off to the junior varsity and varsity teams sanctioned by the MSHSL, those rules go right out the window.

“In high school, they wear them at first,” Johnson said about manufactured neck guards. “It takes one or two practices and they are gone.”

That is why the MSHSL needs to step in. It only makes sense that players should be protected at a level that is more intense and aggressive than Squirts or 10U. And the reasons seem infinite.

First, what is $15 for a neck guard when it comes to protecting a player? Even if everybody adds the rule and it saves just one life, isn’t it worth it?

Second, can an emergency worker assigned to a hockey game stabilize a situation that is as critical as a cut carotid artery or jugular? Zednik survived because he had doctors and sports physicians at the scene.

I recently spoke to an EMT who said that it is possible he could help stabilize a situation of that serious nature, but it is by far, no guarantee. And in most cases, it would take a lot longer to get a player to the emergency room. There is a good chance an neck injury could be fatal.

Even though he is first aid and CPR-certified, Johnson also shared those same type of concerns.
Maybe it is reactionary to mandate neck protection, maybe it’s not, but it just seems to make sense to prevent something that could be life-threatening.

Neck guards should become a regular part of the hockey uniform, not just mouth guards and helmets to lessen the concussion rate. Just like any other rule change, complaints will arise, at first.

But everyone should follow the lead of District 5. Any change that can prevent what happened to Zednik last week should be taken seriously at all levels.