Cole Koepke was en route to a minor league game with Syracuse of the AHL when he heard from a friend that Adam Johnson had been cut by a skate blade during a game in Britain.
After the game last month, the Tampa Bay Lightning left wing found out the fellow University of Minnesota-Duluth product had died.
“I actually knew Adam,” Koepke said after Tampa Bay’s morning skate before Monday night’s game against the Boston Bruins. “A lot to take in ... boom. Shock. Just terrible.”
The death of the 29-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins player has not only forced the sport to re-examine safety regulations but prompted Koepke to the wear a turtleneck-style neck guard.
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“It was pretty easy,” Koepke said of the decision. “You don’t think it will happen to anyone, yet alone someone you know. How it affected so many people just being from the same area. Seeing the impact of it and everything, it just makes sense.
“It doesn’t bother me to wear the neck guard, so I don’t see a reason not to wear it,” Koepke added. “It just seems like the right thing to do.”
Koepke is the first Lightning player to utilize the equipment. The NHL does not mandate its use.
Johnson’s teammate on the Nottingham Panthers also wore neck protection in their first game over the weekend following Johnson’s death in Sheffield on Oct. 28. The Elite Ice Hockey League said it “strongly encourages” players to wear neck guards.
A postmortem examination confirmed Johnson died as a result of a neck injury.
“The person he was, just a great guy,” Koepke said. “Amazing person.”
The NHL has had skate cut scares throughout its history, most notably Buffalo goaltender Clint Malarchuk, who took a blade to the neck during a game against St. Louis on March 22, 1989. Malarchuk received rapid medical attention and played again 10 days later.
Koepke feels in time more players will opt to have the additional neck protection.