VOORHEES, N.J. – It took a tragic death to finally bring awareness to the need for safety netting around National Hockey League rinks.
The same might be said for the current trend of NHL players wearing neck protection after the recent death of former NHL player Adam Johnson due to a skate laceration in that highly vulnerable area.
Other bad things have happened to spur change. Countless players suffered ice damage prior to the decision to make eyeshields mandatory.
Prior to Friday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center, forwards Cam Atkinson, Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny decided to give a Kevlar-reinforced neck device a try.
Atkinson and Konecny said they hope to employ it in Saturday’s home game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights. Sanheim will be using it in game action once he gets an OK from an equipment manufacturer.
Most players already wear cut-proof tape in vulnerable areas like wrists and legs, so the transition to neck protection shouldn’t meet with a lot of resistance.
One close-up look at Atkinson’s face and you can see why he has no trepidation about the equipment change.
He’s sporting a large semi-circular scar around his right eye. And this was after eyeshields were mandatory.
“Yeah I got 75 stitches in Anaheim my third year pro,” he said in the dressing room after practice. “Just going down, on the penalty kill and Ryan Kesler’s skate came back and got me. The shield actually protected me. I closed my eyes so fast, it (skate blade) went halfway through my eyelid. Didn’t even touch my eye.
“The doctor lifted the eyelid. I said I didn’t care what it looked like. But that was the scariest part.”
Atkinson says once the neck protection (in his case, made by a company called Warroad) is in place and action starts, he doesn’t feel it at all. Weight is not a factor. He’s already ordered three devices.
“I’m trying to set a good example,” he said. “You see a lot more guys doing it, TK (Konecny), Sanheim. . .more guys want to do it. It’s a little thing. The game is so fast that anyway you can protect yourself. I have kids now. And hopefully more guys do it.”
The incident in Anaheim wasn’t the only one.
“Unfortunately I’ve gotten cut all over, to the face, to the back – 70 stitches,” Atkinson said. “All from skates. The game is so fast, any way you can add protection, that’s what it’s all about.”
Atkinson said he wore a neck guard in high school and college hockey but then got away from it.
Should neck protection be made mandatory?
“Honestly I heard what (Washington’s T.J.) Oshie said as far as we’re all grown men,” Atkninson said. “Everyone’s in a different situation. For me, I’m doing what’s best for me and my family. If it helps other guys feel more comfortable, wearing a neck guard, that’s what it’s all about.”
Coach John Tortorella said he didn’t even notice which players were wearing neck guards.
He indicated he had no opinion either way on the subject.
“It’s their decision,” he said.
Why aren’t more players wearing protection already? Is there a stigma attached to the decision?
“That’s a good question,” Atkinson said. “Maybe it’s a feel thing. Maybe guys might think it’s uncomfortable or it’s not cool. But at the same time you see more and more freak accidents. If this is going to save lives, I’m for it.”
Sanheim and Konecny expressed similar sentiments.
“I sent the company (Daredevil) I was using (for other equipment) a letter asking if there was anything with protection around the neck,” Sanheim said. “So they sent me a sample and I’m just trying it out right now.”
Like Atkinson, Sanheim said it didn’t take long to get used to the added equipment.
All three players believe neck protection will catch on around the NHL once the word gets out it’s not that big a deal.
Sanheim has his own “war story” to tell.
“In junior I got a nick just under my neck,” he said. “It got me above the shoulderpads. Scary incident but that was my only one.”
Sanheim said almost all the players on the Flyers have expressed interest but right now it’s just a matter of getting the product in a timely fashion.
Having three veterans setting an example helps.
“If you can get some of the older guys on board, it probably kind of makes it easier to push it forward with some of the other guys,” Sanheim said. “Hopefully it’s going to be a team thing so every guy wears it. I think that’s where it needs to go. It (the Johnson incident) was a freak accident but it can happen to anyone.
Konecny often puts himself in high-danger areas so the decision to go to the neckware was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
“I thought about it,” Konecny said. “But I never acted on it. Unfortunately, something like that happens and it scares you. I have a wife and kids at home. To me, it’s like why would I not put it on? I didn’t notice it at all (in practice).”
Bobby Brink, scratched the past two games, will not play in the Vegas game according to Tortorella. The coach doesn’t want to break up a winning lineup (the Flyers have won three straight), although it looks like defenseman Marc Staal will be back in action after missing a month with a lower-body injury. . .Columbus visits the Flyers on Sunday.