VOORHEES, N.J. – Like any NHL rule change regarding safety equipment, it usually takes some sort of tragedy to get the puck rolling.
With end-of-the-rink netting, it took the death of a young fan at a Columbus Blue Jacket game to set a new policy in motion. Soon every NHL arena had protective mesh to prevent a repeat fatality.
Same thing with the institution of eye protection. Not until several players had nearly suffered the complete loss of vision did rulemakers get off their duffs and make plastic shields mandatory.
Now, with the death of a former NHL player competing in England due to a severed artery in his neck from a skateblade, one hockey league has already made protection in that highly vulnerable area mandatory.
Will the NHL follow suit?
There’s bound to be resistance from some players, even after they watched Adam Johnson of the English League succumb to the fatal injury this week.
For Travis Sanheim, the Flyers’ representative to the National Hockey League Players’ Association, making neck protection mandatory totally makes sense.
“It’s an obvious unfortunate situation that went on,” Sanheim said after Tuesday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center. “Very sad and not something you want to see in this game. It’s not something you think about either. You know, we’re playing each and every day. It’s scary.
“For myself, it (protection) is something I’ve worn for two seasons now. I wear completely full gear – cut-proof. The neck area really hasn’t been provided. Maybe in time these companies I think; I would assume now that this has happened, will probably look to add that to a piece of clothing.”
Getting the players to buy in might be an issue. It took them a long time to even accept helmets. Former Flyer Craig MacTavish was the last holdout and it took years until he retired for the rule to become universal.
Maybe make protection optional and see where it goes from there.
“When that (protection) becomes available, I’m sure there are going to be guys that take them up on that,” Sanheim said. “I’ve been trying to take the precautions in other areas. I’ve seen guys wrists, legs (cut). . .all areas.
“It’s something that freaks me out a little bit. I try to take the necessary precautions.”
Then again, some might balk just on principle.
“You’re probably going to get resistance from certain players,” Sanheim said. “Each player is going to be different. Anything I can do to protect myself, I’m going to do that. I would like to hope that a lot of other players would do the same.”
Sanheim says the extra protection is not uncomfortable and doesn’t affect his play.
“The stuff I’m wearing is all base-layered stuff that you’re wearing under gear anyway,” Sanheim said. “Maybe it’s a little bit thick but I got used to it pretty quickly. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Was Johnson’s death a reminder of dangerous the game can be?
“Yeah, it’s a fast-paced game,” Sanheim said. “It’s not something that we’re thinking about when we’re out there playing. But stuff like that can happen. I think we have to realize that and if there are steps that we can take that can kind of limit those instances, I think there are a lot of guys in this room who would do the same.”
Scott Laughton is also on board with the notion of neck protection. It’s already mandatory in the Ontario Hockey League (junior hockey).
“It’s definitely something you have to look at,” Laughton said. “Going forward, see what the league and the players association can do together, working to see what they can do for protection up there.
“Then you have to see how many guys are going to be involved. I think after a tragedy like that, you definitely have to think about it. Being a young guy and having so much life after this is something you have to look at. I know they do it with the socks and the wrist-guards.”
Laughton indicated companies like Bauer would seem to have the technology to make something safe yet not cumbersome.
Perhaps, as was the case with eye protection, young players coming up would be more receptive to added gear simply because they aren’t as set in their ways.
“Yes, I think so,” Laughton said. “I think in America it’s different for neck guards growing up. I know in minor hockey I had to wear one. In pro you took it off. We have to look at it to see if we can make it better and have guys comfortable out there.”