English ice hockey makes neck guards mandatory after death of Adam Johnson

A hockey player skates on a rink
Minnesota Duluth hockey player Adam Johnson skates against Providence College during a NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Northeast Regional semifinal game in Worcester, Mass. Johnson died after being injured in a game in England on Saturday
Richard T Gagnon | Getty Images 2016

Ice hockey players in England will be required to wear neck guards starting next year, following the death of former Hibbing High School and University of Minnesota Duluth player Adam Johnson in a game.

Johnson’s neck was cut by a skate blade on Saturday, while he was playing for the Nottingham Panthers.

Friends, family, teammates and hockey fans across Minnesota and around the world continue to mourn and remember the 29-year-old.

“He got along with everybody,” recalled UMD coach Scott Sandelin, who spoke with reporters at Amsoil Arena in Duluth on Monday. “The guys loved him, they respected him. I mean, obviously, he’s a talented player — but just his personality, right? He got along with everybody, was fun to be around, sometimes life of the party.”

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Sandelin also is from Hibbing, Minn., and recalled watching Johnson’s father, Davey, play hockey years before he coached Adam. Davey Johnson played college hockey at UMD, too.

Sandelin called Adam Johnson “a special kid, you know? Meant a lot to me, too. It was another Hibbing kid that we got in our program, his dad played here, that’s important to us. But he was just a wonderful kid, had a great sense of humor, little witty. But just a special, special player, one of the best players that come out of Hibbing.”

A hockey player skates in an NHL game
Adam Johnson of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Bruce Bennett | Getty Images 2019

Player safety measures

The English Ice Hockey Association, which governs ice hockey in England below the Elite League — where Johnson was playing — announced measures on Monday to improve player safety.

Neck guards will be mandatory from Jan. 1 for all on-ice activities for players. The EIHA said it was its “strong recommendation” that all players start wearing a neck guard, effective immediately. The body added neck guards would not be mandatory immediately because of anticipated supply issues.

“It is unacceptable for any player to lose their life while playing sport,” the EIHA said. “Our responsibility is not only to avert the recurrence of such a heartbreaking accident, but also to pre-emptively address other foreseeable incidents in the future.”

Players in the U.K. are allowed to play without neck guards after they turn 18.

The 29-year-old Johnson was playing for Nottingham against the Sheffield Steelers when he suffered the skate cut in a Champions Cup game. He appeared in 13 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019 and 2020.

Within 12 months, the EIHA said it would conduct a “thorough” review of player safety equipment “including, but not limited to, the use of helmets, mouthguards/gumshields and facial protection.”

All clubs will have to demonstrate they “proactively manage player safety.” The body said its actions aligned with Ice Hockey UK and Scottish Ice Hockey.

“We are firmly committed to our obligation to exhaust every possible means to ensure that a tragic incident of this nature never befalls our sport again,” the EIHA said.

“Undoubtedly, this moment in time casts a somber shadow upon our global sporting community, serving as a stark reminder of our collective responsibilities as custodians of the sport. As in all sports, the safety of our players must take precedence above all else.”

Growing discussion

Speaking with reporters on Monday, Sandelin, the UMD men’s hockey coach, said there has been growing discussion about requiring hockey players to wear protective neck guards and other additional protective gear.

“There’s been some close calls, there’s been some that we probably haven’t heard about. I know there’s been a lot of different injuries (from) skates, whether it’s arms, legs,” Sandelin said — noting that another former UMD player, goalie Alex Stalock, was injured after being cut by a skate in an American Hockey League game in 2011.

“We play a game, there’s risk. But if we can mitigate that, in some way, I think it does need to be looked at,” he said.

Sandelin told reporters Monday morning that the coaching staff would be meeting with UMD players to talk more about what happened. The team learned about Johnson’s death while on the road for games at Cornell.

“Just want to get our guys together and make sure we’re all there for each other,” he said. “And some guys probably need it a little bit more. We have our staff, but there’s players there that, like I said, have a little deeper relationship, that I know it’s hurting them. And so we gotta get through it together. And that’s why you’re a team and that’s why you’re a family and that’s why we’re going to have that meeting and discuss those things.”

“They’re gonna all deal with it a little bit differently,” Sandelin said of his players. “Is there gonna be some fear? Absolutely. If there’s not, you’re not human. ... I do think it has an effect on everybody that plays the game.”