When I learned of the tragic event causing the death of an innocent boy, Teddy Balkind, I cringed then said a prayer for that boy, his family and for the skater whose skate accidentally caused this beyond-belief tragedy. It was sheer happenstance and could have been anyone, but that poor young man will likely be carrying the horrific memory of the accident for the rest of his life.
The Teddy Balkind tragedy triggered a lot of tough memories about the unspoken dangers of our sport; when the risks had tragic or near-tragic consequences. It caused me time to think back to two incidents from the NHL when Clint Malarchuk and Richard Zednik both suffered the same type of skate cut to their necks. Horrible luck they got cut and nearly bled to death. It was incredible good fortune that trainers saved these guys from bleeding out right there on the ice.
When I played at Groton vs our rival St. Mark's, our captain took a slap shot that got deflected. I followed the flight of the puck that went screaming over the glass and into the spectators. It was like a parting of the Red Sea until a boy who wasn't watching the play got hit squarely in the face. It was a terrible scene and it blinded this boy who was a top-flight tennis player. How he has fared these 50 years later I never knew. I do know that our captain was devasted emotionally. He felt guilty -- although he was clearly not at fault -- and I am not certain that he ever shook it off.
Feeling responsible is a heavy cross to bear even though it was an accident. So even as we show love and compassion for Teddy Balkind's family, let's be sure to do the same for the young player in CT whose skate made the cut. I am hoping that he gets the support he needs, now and on an ongoing basis.
Next, I wonder whether this tragedy could be the impetus to finally bring about long-overdue changes. We need to absolutely minimize skate cuts to the jugular vein. In Canada, it is a rule and a law that all players must wear neck guards under the age of 18. I'm 100 percent in favor of that becoming a universal requirement.
We have U18 players wearing full face masks and teeth and eye injuries have plunged to nearly zero. In the pros, we have playing wearing visors. Good that they make it a rule. However, we allow the players to improperly wear their helmets such that the visor is so tilted high that is only covering their eyebrows and not their eyes. I get it: the visors are hot and uncomfortable. They fog up. They can cause cuts themselves. Guess what, the benefits still outweigh the drawbacks. But they have to be worn correctly.
Many players don't wear their mouth pieces or simply chew on it and dangle it from their mouths. Not so important if they are wearing a full mask but really important if they are only wearing a visor. Teeth and gums are exposed to the high stick, the elbow or a fall face first onto the ice.
There is conflicting evidence about the efficacy of mouth pieces as relates to concussions. I'm not sure about whose studies to believe. I'll leave that one to the doctors who debate their worth (and to boxing trainers and dentists). Maybe if mouth guards were worn back when I played, it'd have saved me a few chicklets.
After I stopped playing and reffing in the pros, I wore a mouth piece. Eight teeth were knocked out during my playing career. It cost $15,000 to replace them plus a lot of agony and time. I wear a mouth piece now that I'm retired and wiser than I used to be.
Adding neck guards, visors, face masks, etc., are all well and good unless they are improperly worn. Guess what? That's allowed by the coaches, the trainers, the leagues and (wink, wink) the referees.
I was at an ECAC game one evening as the Director of Officiating. I noticed that the goalie had bare skin on his legs with only his goalie pad straps on the back side of his legs. I took a picture and went to the coach and the trainer and told them that the goalie couldn't play with no hockey socks on.
Allowing that goalie to play with exposed skin was both contrary to the rule that all players must be uniformed and a safety issue. Goalies are on the ice and players skate over them, possibly causing skate cuts that could cut the femoral artery or tendons on the back of the legs.
Goaltender Alex Stalock from San Jose while playing in Worcester had such a cut with 8 hours of micro surgery at The Mayo clinic saving him from never playing again. He had thin long johns on. Anthony Stolarz, now with Anaheim, got similarly lucky not to have his career ended.
The hockey socks may not have completely stopped the cut but likely would have minimized the damage with at least a layer of some protection.
The trainer and the coach of that ECAC team were mad at me as was the Commissioner who all said, "What's the point?" I always say the rules are a guide and a shield. Go by the rules.
Now I see goalies wearing thin nylon long legged underwear that offer no protection whatsoever. Wink wink, coaches don't want to "upset" the player so that ignore the rule and never teach the logic behind the rule. Teaching is a vital part of coaching. Instead, far too many coaches go into Sgt. Schultz mode: I see nothing! Notttttthing!!!
I have first-hand experience with goalies getting cut. I was reffing in Hampton, VA when a forward skated thru the crease and sliced the goalie who was down in a split. The goalie had not zipped up his inside pant legs and I didn't notice that fact. It cost me my belt as I watched the blood spurt in the air from the goalies artery.
I put the belt on his leg and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Fortunately, like Malarchuk, a trainer and a Dr were right there and saved the goalie's life. Cost me a belt but I breathed a sigh of relief that night after we left the arena. I also learned something about noticing players and what they wore.
Where do we need to go?
Neck guards: make the players wear them correctly or even Kevlar turtlenecks which is what I gave my two sons and make them wear as they play and ref.
Visors and mouth pieces: Wear them correctly or sit on the bench. No exceptions.
Helmets and face masks: Same deal. Wear them correctly or don't play.
Goalies; Wearing socks or kevlar longjohns.
Leagues, coaches, trainers and referees, it's up to you to enforce these rules. It's about safety.
Leagues, back the officials when they enforce a rule. Officials, be vigilant and diligent. The safety of the players is why you're out there.
Finally, to parents and players, understand that it's about eliminating tragedy. If your heart breaks for Teddy Balkind and the other player involved and you shudder and recoil at any nightmarish vision that it could be your child -- and I am sure that you do -- help us do all that is possible to minimize the risk of devastating injuries or even fatalities. PLEASE be part of the solution. It's for the good of the game as a whole and for the players' safety.
While I'm here, I'm going to stand on the soapbox just a little longer. I recently had to let a few referees go as they refused to wear masks during this pandemic. Too bad, so sad, see ya.
This is the world we live in now: stop being selfish and not caring who you might be endangering for the sake of your own comfort. Get with the community or get gone. One ref lost 9 games at $115 a game. Expensive decision; hope it was worth it to him. It's ice time and games that he won't get back.
There's a lot more to the game besides take the puck and go. Lifetimes are affected by lack of rule enforcement, cooperation and plain old ignorance. So let's get with it.
I am calling on all the upper levels of hockey -- the pros, the NCAA, Hockey Canada and the CHL, the IIHF, USA Hockey, SIF and other European federations -- to lead the way for the good of the game and the safety of the players.
And that's all I have to say about that.
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.
Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart