Local hockey players are sporting some new gear in the wake of the death of a former NHL player in England.
The British Columbia Hockey League has made the decision for protective neck guards to be mandatory last week, after American hockey player Adam Johnson, who appeared in 13 NHL games with Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019 and 2020, died when his neck was cut by a skate blade during a game in England on Oct. 28, 2023. He was 29.
The South Surrey-based Surrey Eagles team started donning the neckwear prior to the mandate, with Eagles head coach Cam Keith saying it was an easy decision.
“We felt it was good timing,” he said. “Basically, it’s a band that Velcros in the back… it covers that vital area of your neck, so if a skate were to come up, it would restrict it from cutting it open.”
The Eagles players grew up wearing neck guards in minor hockey leagues, Keith noted, so it was more of a matter of getting used to wearing them again.
“Personally I’ve always felt why not wear a neck guard – it’s not inhibiting your sight. It can obviously save your life, you just never know.”
The Western Hockey League made neck guards mandatory Nov. 3, 2023, and BCHL commissioner Steven Cocker confirmed Monday (Nov. 27) that the entire BCHL league has now made it mandatory as well.
“Early last week was when it was formally brought in,” Cocker said.
“To me, it was honestly a no-brainer… it certainly wasn’t a difficult one to get unanimous support of our league. One of our pillars – we have four pillars and one of them is player safety.”
The difficulty many teams have been having since the tragic England incident has been actually finding neck guards, he noted.
“It’s hit-and-miss right now and the simple fact is, stock isn’t available.”
Any mandatory requirements are based on the availability, or stock, of neck guards for players, and Cocker said the BCHL is working with its partners to secure such stock.
“We knew there was a stock issue, but I’m hoping it’s not too much longer now that every player has this available to wear,” said Cocker.
While professional hockey players have been injured by skates – even in the neck – before, Johnson’s death raised a more immediate sensitivity to the issue, both Cocker and Keith said.
“It was really unfortunate that had to happen to create more awareness about it,” Keith said.
Police in England arrested a man on Nov. 14 on suspicion of manslaughter and while they didn’t name him, other media outlets reported Matt Petgrave – the other player involved in the incident – was released on bail after the arrest.
The Peace Arch News has also reached out to White Rock Whalers and the Pacific Junior Hockey League about neck guards for players, but has yet to receive a response.
The Surrey Eagles, who started off their season leading the league in points and undefeated several games in a row, are still leading the BCHL’s Coastal Conference 20 games in with 32 points, despite losing their last three games (all away games).
They return to The Nest, their Olympic-sized rink in South Surrey, for a four-game homestand starting with the Cranbrook Bucks this Sunday, Dec. 3, with a 4 p.m. puck drop.
Despite a few recent losses, Keith is still extremely happy with the Eagles’ efforts so far this season.
“It’s going great! There’ve been a lot of positives throughout the season so far – not just the results,” he said. “We have three of the leading scorers in the league right now, players (are) winning scholarships… our team is getting recognized in that way a lot.”
So far, five Eagles players have earned scholarships: forward Ryden Evers (University of Nebraska-Omaha); right winger Ryan Schelling (Providence College), centre Zachary Wagnon (Yale), defenseman and team captain Ty Brassington (Clarkson University) and goalie Ajeet Gundarah (Sacred Heart University).
“We’ve had some good home games with some good results,” Keith noted.
“We’ve only lost one home game so far so we feel like this could be a good year for us to try to win a championship.”
– files from Leaha Hammond, Associated Press