adam johnson neck guards
Screenshot: First NHL Goal YouTube

While many sports fans have been decried attempts to soften and sanitize violent sports in recent years, the English Ice Hockey Association probably won’t find themselves in hot water for mandating neck guards. Starting in 2024, the league will require neck protection as a result of the gruesome on-ice death of American player Adam Johnson.

The Pens and Ducks honor Adam Johnson before a game | Screenshot via NHL Youtube

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Neck guards, typically worn mostly by younger players and goalies, could have saved Johnson’s life.

His neck was slashed open by the skate of opponent Matt Petgrave. Opinions have come fast and furious, with many accusing Petgrave of being a dirty player who intentionally kicked Johnson.

Fans remember Buffalo Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk’s near-death injury when his throat was slashed during an obviously-accidental collision in the crease in 1989. Malarchuk immediately bled profusely while holding his neck, but was able to get off the ice and survived the ordeal. You can watch video of the grisly incident here.

Clint Malarchuk in 1986 | via Wikimedia

Another similar incident happened more recently in 2008, when Panthers winger Richard Zednick was caught in the neck by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen as the latter was going down from a collision. Grisly video of the incident, which you can view here, shows how upset the other players became at seeing the spectacle.

Family members of Adam Johnson have called Petgrave “reckless” and many others have called for Petgrave to be criminally charged. Former NHL defenseman Chris Therien wants the English Ice Hockey Association shut down altogether. And in keeping with the times, a quick perusal of social media shows many commenters see a racial element involved, as Petgrave is black and Johnson was white.

While we don’t know if there is any serious move by British authorities to charge Petgrave, at least one legal expert has said that such a scenario is unlikely.

As a former player myself, who frequently tossed the scratchy, restrictive neck guard back in my bag before hitting the ice, the thought of freshly sharpened steel on bare skin makes me shiver.

Hockey is an incredibly dangerous sport, and frankly it’s surprising that such serious – fatal – injuries don’t occur more often. If there is a silver lining, it’s that every coach in every locker room, whether they’re looking at tiny little mites or college players, will be warning about errant skates and sticks, and checking necks for those uncomfortable but perhaps life-saving neck guards at the locker room door.

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