Adam Johnson's 'freak' hockey death sparks debate over neck protection

A side view of a hockey player in her gear watching the game.
In between shifts during a scrimmage against Moose Lake Area, Marshall’s Sydney Erickson can be seen wearing a Bauer Longsleeve Neckprotect Saturday at Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth. Erickson is wearing a Bauer Longsleeve Neckprotect and the product has been in high demand since hockey player Adam Johnson lost his life during an on ice accident last week.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The day eight years ago is still vivid in Krisa Keute’s memory. Her oldest son, Cole, was 11 years old and playing in a summer hockey game in Duluth. A teammate took a hard slap shot and kicked up his leg.

“And his skate hit Cole’s jaw. And Cole suffered a lacerating injury to the high neck,” recalled Keude, a physician. She quickly drove Cole to the emergency room. It required 19 stitches to sew up the gash.

“I guess it was just very emotional. It seems like it’s something that could be probably prevented. So it was something that we’ll never forget,” Keute said.

Afterwards, Keute made sure Cole and his younger brother wore neck laceration protectors. But many of their teammates, she said, did not.

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“It’s a beautiful, wonderful sport with a lot of pride and toughness that we like to wear on our sleeve, but there’s also the reality that we’re vulnerable and can get hurt. I don’t think buying a neck guard is really an unrealistic expectation for any parent or any player.”

Keute said she got a flood of text messages from people around Duluth after former University of Minnesota Duluth star Adam Johnson died in what was called a “freak accident” on Oct. 28, when his neck was cut by a hockey skate during a game in an English hockey league where Johnson was playing in Europe.

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 Championship semifinal game in Worcester, Mass.
Richard T Gagnon | Getty Images 2016

Since Johnson’s death, some organizations are now requiring players to wear neck laceration protectors, including the league in England where he played. The Pittsburgh Penguins — the NHL club for which Johnson briefly played earlier in his career — have also mandated them for their minor league affiliates. Canadian youth leagues have long required them.

But most youth leagues in Minnesota, including the state high school league, do not. They tend to defer to USA Hockey, which recommends that players wear them, but doesn’t mandate it.

Two images of hockey players
A Marshall School player without a neck protector (top) versus teammate Sydney Erickson (bottom) who sports a Bauer Longsleeve Neckprotect as seen during moments between shifts Saturday during the Hilltoppers’ scrimmage against Moose Lake Area at Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Officials with Minnesota Hockey, which oversees youth and amateur hockey in the state, declined an interview request. ”Studies performed by USA Hockey in conjunction with its advisors in the medical field have concluded to recommend but not mandate the use of neck laceration equipment,” the organization said in a statement posted on its website after Johnson’s death.

“We encourage parents and players to determine for themselves what is best for the player in this regard.”

‘It just makes me less scared’

On a recent afternoon at the Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth, players for the Marshall School’s girls hockey team skated across the ice, practicing passing and shooting, the sound of pucks echoing off the boards.

Coach Callie Hoff, 24, grew up playing youth hockey nearby. She said she encourages her players to wear neck protection.

“At this moment in time, they’re not mandatory. But if I were to step out on the ice again, and play in a hockey game, I sure would have one,” she said. “I just I think that extra measure, they make so many things out there, between neck guards and the protective shirts now that go up on your neck, that there’s something for everyone that you can find comfortable.”

Despite that endorsement, only two of her players currently wear them. Under 15-year-old Sydney Erickson’s jersey, she wears what looks like a turtleneck with cut-resistant kevlar fibers woven into the neck.

“It feels really good actually, and I like it under my gear in case my jersey were to come up,” Erickson said. “It protects me on my arms and my stomach along with my neck in case I were to get a stick or skate to my body.”

She said she started wearing it after Connecticut high school player Teddy Balkind died last year when his neck was sliced by a skate blade — an accident that also had some calling for neck guard requirements.

“I’ve just liked it ever since, and I feel like an extra level of safety with it. And it just makes me less scared on the ice.”

A group of hockey players surround a coach in a jacket.
Marshall School head girls hockey coach Callie Hoff speaks to players during a scrimmage against Moose Lake Area Saturday at Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Erickson said many of her teammates have neck guards but don’t like to wear them. That’s the experience for Allison Iacone, who’s daughter also skates for Marshall.

“They make her feel hot. And they make her feel a little claustrophobic. They get tight around her neck.”

Now, she said, they’re trying to find a better piece of equipment she could wear to keep her cool but also safe. Iacone said she wishes there was a mandate in place.

“This has been a long conversation. Helmets didn’t used to be required, cages didn’t used to be required. All of these equipment changes have happened because of devastating accidents and incidents. And when we know better, we do better. And I think that we’re there.”

Other parents who spoke to MPR News, including former competitive hockey players, agreed a requirement should probably be in place for youth players.

“The odds of it happening, you know, if you do the math and follow the games, it’s such a slim chance of that ever happening,” said Chris Theis, who grew up playing in Bloomington, Minn., and now coaches and sits on the board of a girls hockey association in Duluth.

“But you’ve got to take those precautions. It can’t happen ever again. And so I think something’s going to have to happen.”

A hockey player moves on the ice.
Marshall’s Sydney Erickson moves during a scrimmage against Moose Lake Area Saturday. Erickson said wearing the neck protector is nothing new as she had been wearing one since before the Adam Johnson incident.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Something is better than nothing

A spokesperson for USA Hockey said it’s received a surge of questions about neck protection since Johnson’s death, and will continue to evaluate whether to require them.

For now, the organization continues to only recommend that all players wear a neck laceration protector, in addition to cut-resistant socks, sleeves and undergarments.

The topic hits close to home for Dr. Michael J. Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical and safety officer. Stuart, an orthopedic surgery professor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is also a hockey dad — his three sons went on to play collegiate and professional hockey.

On Halloween day, in 1998, his oldest son Mike suffered a skate blade laceration to his neck when he was a freshman at Colorado College. It required 22 sutures.

“So it’s been something that I’ve thought about for many years. And we’ve tried very hard to come up with better standards for certification and better equipment to make the currently available protective devices more effective.”

Part of why USA Hockey does not require neck protection is because there are a wide variety of products out there, with a wide range of effectiveness.

There currently is no uniform standard for design and materials for neck protection that is certified and lab-tested for ice hockey, as there is for helmets and face shields.

Stuart said a survey they conducted several years ago found that 27 percent of players who sustained or witnessed a laceration from a skate blade to the neck area were actually wearing a neck laceration protector at the time of the injury.

“So, to say that we can eliminate this problem by wearing a neck laceration protector? My answer is I hope we can someday, but we certainly can’t right now.”

That being said, Stuart stresses that wearing something, is better than wearing nothing.

Players from two hockey teams pursue the puck.
Marshall’s Sydney Erickson moves between Moose Lake Area players in pursuit of a loose puck.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“Personally, I would like to see all players wearing them. But I think we need to have a better ‘something.’ I honestly feel that there is room for improvement.”

Still, Stuart believes Johnson’s tragic death will result in more players choosing to wear neck protection, even without a requirement.

Neck laceration protectors have flown off store shelves since Johnson’s death. Warroad Hockey, a company co-founded by Washington Capitals forward and Minnesota native T.J. Oshie, has sold out of its cut-resistant neck and wrist base layers.

Krisa Keute, the Duluth physician whose son was cut in the neck playing hockey eight years ago, acknowledged if there’s no requirement in place to wear a neck guard, players and parents have the right to choose not to wear one.

“But I look at my two boys and sometimes I see that scar and if I could have prevented that, I would have.”