The death of a high school hockey player renews the debate on neck protectors

Expressions of grief over the death of Connecticut high school hockey player Teddy Balkind have traversed the ice hockey world, from mom...


Expressions of grief over the death of Connecticut high school hockey player Teddy Balkind have traversed the ice hockey world, from moments of pre-game silence in New England to tributes on the shows “Hockey Night in Canada” with hockey sticks tenderly placed on porches from Manitoba to Minnesota to Maine.

Balkind, 16, a sophomore at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, died after a player’s skate blade cut his neck in an ice collision during a game last Thursday in Greenwich, Connecticut. Such fatal accidents are rare, but when they do happen they horrify and arouse a powerful sense of “but for the grace of God”, mainly among hockey parents. Few people know what Dr Michael Stuart, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Safety Officer of USA Hockey, feels.

Stuart helped draft the organization’s neck protection policy. He also saw his son suffer a similar injury to a Colorado College defenseman 24 years ago. Mike Stuart survived after 22 stitches closed what his father described as an “almost ear-to-ear” gash.

“It could have been the same for our own son,” the doctor said of Balkind’s injury. “I wish this young man had the wound our son had. It brings back vivid memories to me, and it is very close and dear to my heart. “

The death of Grade 10 student Balkind refocused the exam on the use of neck protection in amateur hockey in the United States.

USA Hockey, the national governing body of the sport, recommends players wear neck guards that cover as much of the neck as possible, but it does not require them to do so, making the United States somewhat of an exception on the scene. international hockey, despite having done considerable research on the subject.

Hockey governing bodies in Canada and Sweden require neck guards on fans, as do many European leagues and the International Ice Hockey Federation.

In the United States, the decision to wear neck protection for players is left to the discretion of hockey associations and supervisory boards. The result is a patchwork of policies.

The school in Balkind, St. Luke’s, and the team’s in-game opponent, Brunswick School, Greenwich, play under the rules of the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council, which does not require players to wear neck guards.

In contrast, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, who sets the rules for high school hockey in the state, but not for preschools, requires all players to wear “commercially manufactured throat guards designed specifically for ice hockey.”

“Every hockey player in the United States should wear one because USA Hockey recommends it,” said Stuart, adding that establishing a mandate is a regular item on the agenda of the annual conference. ‘organization – and certainly will be again – when the conference begins on Thursday.

“It’s great that a warrant can be offered,” Stuart said. “Whether or not that can prevent that from happening, whether or not that will have any effect, I guess will remain to be seen.”

Neck guards can be the most hated piece of hockey equipment that players hate. They’re usually made from Kevlar or nylon, foam, and velcro, and gamers, especially kids, complain that they’re hot and bulky.

It is not clear if Balkind was wearing neck protection when he was injured. Michael West, St. Luke’s athletic director, and school spokesperson Nancy Troeger declined to comment, saying they are focused on giving their community the privacy they need to make the mourning.

It is also not clear whether a neck protector would have prevented his injury.

Yet more than 63,000 people have signed an online petition started by a friend from Balkind to make neck guards a mandatory piece of equipment.

“It feels like there is no reason not to have the required neck protection in the US, and it feels like we must have lost a young hockey player to get the word out. said the petitioner, Sam Brande of Wayland, Mass., who attended summer camp with Balkind for years.

Brande, 16 and a serious hockey player, said he started wearing a neck protection last week after Balkind’s death. “An injury like this seemed impossible to me,” Brande said.

Skate lacerations are among the most horrific injuries in sport. But they are relatively rare, and skate lacerations on the neck are even rarer.

A USA Hockey Poll in 2008 found that only 1.8 percent of players reported ever having suffered or witnessed a cut to the neck caused by a skate during play. Thirty-three players who reported having been cut to the neck suffered injuries. injuries that are not life threatening. About one in four people who were cut, 27 percent, wore neck protection.

Overall, 45 percent of the 26,342 respondents said they regularly wear a neck protection, according to the poll, which USA Hockey described as the largest ever.

However, the organization later concluded that the investigation did not provide enough information to justify the requirement to wear neck protectors.

“To date, there is little data to describe the prevalence of such an event, the severity, or whether a neck laceration protector (neck protector) reduces the risk or severity,” the policy reads. USA Hockey on the “Neck Laceration Protector”.

He also says, “USA Hockey recommends that all players wear neck laceration protection, choosing a design that covers the neck area as much as possible. Further research and improved standards testing will better determine the effectiveness of neck laceration protectors.

USA Hockey has since documented 13 incidents of neck lacerations caused by in-game skates, or about one per year, according to data provided by the organization.

The organization’s philanthropic arm, the USA Hockey Foundation, has also funded a handful of studies that have been published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine on various aspects of neck guards, including their effective in preventing cuts and their impact on a player’s range of motion.

Almost all of the neck guards tested prevented cuts in the low force simulations, but all failed in the high force simulations.

“If USA Hockey is an outlier, it’s because we’ve done more research and spent more time and effort trying to make neck lacerations less of a problem than anyone else. ‘other in the world,’ said Stuart. “There isn’t a lot of other research going on on this.”

Before Balkind’s injury, the two most important cases involved NHL players, who both survived.

Buffalo Sabers Goalie Clint malarchuk was cut in 1989 when an opposing player, Steve Tuttle of the St. Louis Blues, crashed into the goal crease and his skate blade severed Malarchuk’s carotid artery and nicked his jugular vein.

In 2008, Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik suffered a similar injury when his teammate Olli Jokinen lost his balance in a battle for a free puck along the boards and his skate caught Zednik’s neck.

In 1975, another New England school player, the 18-year-old defenseman James Dragone Jr., bled to death when an opposing player’s skate cut his neck during a game in Boston. Almost 3000 people assisted his funeral.

In 2017, at a girls’ game in Guelph, Ont., 16-year-old Cassidy Gordon escaped serious injury after another player’s skate hit her neck. She was wearing a neck protector.

“This may be of value in protecting from a neck laceration or the severity of a neck laceration,” Stuart said. “While it is not proven, it certainly makes enough logistical sense that USA Hockey would recommend it to all players, and if imposing it could even save potentially catastrophic injury or death, then I think USA Hockey would be. the first to do so. “

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