No matter where a tragedy in youth sports strikes, it always evokes emotions of sympathy and sadness throughout the athletic community.
But when a fatality happens to a high school ice hockey player one town over from where you grew up, it has an even more profound impact on your inner being.
That’s why Riverside, Connecticut native Cam Atkinson, now in his first season with the Flyers, was thunderstruck last Thursday to learn a teenaged player named Teddy Balkind of nearby New Canaan had died from injuries suffered in a game.
Balkind, a sophomore on the St. Luke’s team in New Canaan, was fatally injured after falling to the ice and having his neck accidentally stepped upon by a player from the rival Brunswick School, located in Greenwich.
These types of incidents happen every once in a great while playing the sport because of its speed and somewhat violent nature. The list includes body checking, constant crashing into unforgiving boards and, most dangerous of all, the use of razor-sharp skates which can be unintentionally weaponized when collisions occur.
After Monday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, N.J., Atkinson elaborated on initial comments he made last Thursday when he said he was “heartbroken’’ for the Balkind family and that it was a “horrible tragedy playing the game we all love.’’
There is sort of a loose-knit fraternity of Connecticut-born NHL players who feel the way Atkinson does and the support they are showing the family is both encouraging and revealing of their character.
“So sad, such a tragic event, (in) my hometown,’’ Atkinson said during a media Zoom call. “I’ve been on the phone with a lot of buddies back home that are mutual friends with the Balkind family. Even this morning before practice, (I found) there is going to be a GoFundMe page starting within the next week or two.’’
No need to tell NHL players the dangers of the sport. They’re out there every night playing the game at the highest level. No one escapes the injury list. Everyone has the black and blue marks, the missing teeth, the scars, the old X-rays from broken bones to prove it.
“I’ve had a lot of other players around the league reach out to me,’’ Atkinson said. “Guys from Connecticut, like (Los Angeles Kings goalie) ‘Johnny’ Quick, Max Pacioretty. . .guys who all kind of grew up in that area. Kevin Shattenkirk played for Brunswick. We all want to help out any way we can.’’
According to an article published in the New York Times, Balkind was a fun-loving kid with an eye for artwork and an attraction to the outdoors. Videos showed him mountain biking and leaping over branches on trails in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. There is a photograph showing him celebrating a state championship with his hockey team.
Back in 2017, it was reported on the school website he was one of St. Luke’s “Artwork of the Week’’ winners with a photo of his “amazing ceramic steak dinner.’’
A photo of him mountain biking was posted online and it received nearly 1,000 messages with hearts and “RIPs.’’
Atkinson and a number of NHL players signed sticks with Balkin’s initials, “TB,” and put them outside as a show of support. The tradition started back in 2018 when a junior hockey bus crash in Saskatchewan, Canada claimed the lives of 16 players.
For years, schools around the country have debated the mandatory use of neck guards to prevent tragedies such as this. Perhaps now this will set in motion some legislation to make a form of throat protection as essential as helmets.
“I think there’s a petition going around that teams wear their neck guards now,’’ Atkinson said. “It’s just so sad. I can’t imagine what that family is going through – the players on the ice and everyone involved.’’
Atkinson said he will post information on how to contribute to the GoFundMe page when details become available.
“Again, my heart goes out to that family,’’ he said. “Any way we can help out, we will. Just be on the lookout in the next week or two (for GoFundMe details). Every dollar goes a long way.’’