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The Stew: Neck Guards and Protective Gear

December 18, 2023, 7:57 PM ET [3 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
In the weeks since the horrific death of former AHL player Adam Johnson from a skate cut to his throat in a game in the UK, there has been a predictable cycle. Almost immediately, a batch of NHL players, realizing that what happened to Adam could happen to any player, have either adopted neck guards or at least try them out. The IIHF and some leagues mandated neck protection -- the neck guards are not absolute protection against skate cuts but do help reduce the risk and potential severity.

Frankly, it's been largely a matter of luck that on-ice tragedies such as one with Johnson are rare. But the risk is constantly there, and one tragedy is one too many, especially when it's largely avoidable.

Are the neck guards a bit hot and take a little getting used to comfort wise? Yes. Should that prevent them from becoming mandatory? No. Players of just-after my generation just used to helmets becoming widespread leaguewide and then mandatory (for all who entered the NHL from 1980-81 onward). I wore a helmet when I played, although I didn't as an official. The next generation got used to prevalent and then mandatory visors. The visors have their drawbacks -- heat, fogging, can also sometime cause facial cuts -- but are the positives of greatly reduced risk of serious eye injuries worth it? Yes.

Same thing with neck guards. Any drawbacks are outweighed by the positives. Right now, though, the momentum has slowed a bit since the initial response to the Adam Johnson tragedy. The NHL is "encouraging neck guards" but not -- yet -- planning to require them. I think the latter inevitable at some point. It might as well be now. Yes, I understand the NHLPA has to get onboard as part of it.

As an official and officiating supervisor, I personally think skate-cut protection on the neck as well as cut resistant hockey socks should be part of the official definition of being properly uniformed. Likewise, a properly fastened helmet and -- if a player wears a mouth guard (I know the literature in mixed on their protectiveness against concussions), wearing it the right way and not dangling from the lips -- fall within that definition.

As an officiating director, my instruction to the crews would be that a player not wearing mandatory or suggested protective gear the right way should be sent off to correct it. If it happens again, it's a misconduct. At the end of the day, if the gear is wearing YOU and not being worn as intended to be protective, it should be on coaches and team staff to make sure their players wear it the right way. Officials shouldn't have to say "pretty please."

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A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
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