Hockey USA moves to require neck guards after player death

Photos are displayed at a public memorial service
Photos are displayed at a public memorial service for hockey player Adam Johnson in his hometown arena Monday, Nov. 7, 2023, at the Hibbing Memorial Building Arena in Hibbing, Minn. Johnson died after being injured during a game in England while playing for the Nottingham Panthers.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

The USA Hockey Board of Directors has begun the process of recommending rule changes for protective neck gear after Minnesota native Adam Johnson died after a skate slashed his neck in a professional game last month in England.

Tuesday morning, a suspect was arrested for alleged manslaughter in his death, South Yorkshire Police announced. The person’s identity remains unknown, but they are in custody.

There's long been a reluctance among some players to wear protective equipment paired with a slow rollout. Hockey reporter Jess Myers with The Rink Live and Forum Communications says the changes are necessary.

“Over the years, hockey has been somewhat slow I guess to adapt the use of helmets, face masks and other gear,” Myers told MPR News. “I always hearken back to pictures from the ‘40s and ‘50s, the early days of the National Hockey League, when you literally saw goalies playing hockey with no helmets on… you think about that today and just how just crazy that seems. But that's just kind of been the evolution of this sport over time.”

On Saturday, the USA Hockey Board of Directors voted unanimously to direct its safety and protective equipment committee to consider requirements. They could consider a proposal as soon as January.

One reason players opt out of neck protection is overheating, Myers said.

“I think, like anything, it's just going to be a matter of getting used to it, getting comfortable with it, and the players I've talked to who have tried these in the weeks here following the the Adam Johnson tragedy have said they really feel like it's something they owe to their families, that playing hockey is, you know, a relatively short part of their life and they want to be as safe as they can.”

But that safety equipment is in short supply as demand for neck guards ballooned following Johnson’s death. Some leagues like the English Ice Hockey Association and teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins — for which Johnson once played — have now mandated the gear.

Gophers Men’s Hockey Coach Bob Motzko and Women’s Hockey Coach Brad Frost immediately wanted to make neck gear available for all interested players. But a week later, the men’s team was only able to secure one neck guard, according to Myers.

There have been several instances of neck injuries over the years, but Johnson’s death has proven to be a tipping point for the hockey community.

“The fact that it's 2023, the fact that there was video of it happening, you know, that has been spread all over the internet … it was really a horrific scene… the cut was so severe, it seemed like, there was really just nothing effective they could do. I think that has really caught the attention of a lot of people,” Myers said.

Neck guards don’t completely eliminate the chance of getting hurt. USA Hockey research shows that 27 percent of players who suffered a laceration to the neck were wearing one. And the data are limited. Myers says players he’s spoken with have generally been receptive to trying one out.

“Sometimes takes a tragedy to make change happen. But I think that might be where we are right now.”