News & Insights
The tragic death of ice hockey player Adam Johnson on 28 October 2023 has caused considerable shock.
Mr Johnson, a 29-year-old from Minnesota, was playing in his first season with the Nottingham Panthers in the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League (‘EIHL’) at the time of his death. He had previously played in numerous other leagues, including having played 13 games with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. During the second period of a Champions cup game against Sheffield Steelers, Mr Johnson’s neck was cut by a skate blade. Mr Johnson was not wearing a neck guard, as players in the UK are allowed to play without neck guards once they turn 18.
The inquest into Mr Johnson’s death was formally opened on 3 November 2023, when it was adjourned until 26 January 2024. The senior coroner, Tanyka Rawden, stressed that the adjourned date would be for a review and not for the full inquest.
The Panthers released a statement on the day of the incident, saying that the death was a ‘freak accident’. However, Mr Johnson’s death is not the first fatal, or almost fatal, neck injury in ice hockey. In January 2022, Teddy Balkind, a 16-year-old sophomore at an American High School in Connecticut, died after his neck was cut by another player’s skate. In May 2009, Chicago Blackhawks Adam Burish had his neck slashed during a game against the Red Wings in Detroit. In February 2008, Florida Panthers Richard Zednik almost died when the carotid artery in his neck was sliced by a teammates blade in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. In October 1995, Bengt Akerblom, a 28-year-old Swedish Player, died when his neck was cut by a skate. This led to the mandatory wearing of neck guards in Sweden.
All this begs the question – why isn’t the wearing of neck guards mandatory worldwide?
Since the death of Mr Johnson, a number of ice hockey players have been interviewed. A theme which has emerged is the stigma which seems to be attached to the wearing of a neck guard once a player turns 18.
Abigail Culshaw, GB Ice Hockey player, was interviewed by BBC Newsbeat, where she explained “if you’ve got a neck guard you’re still seen as like a junior”. She said players would ‘wind up’ or ‘call out’ others for wearing a guard and ‘belittle them’.
Shane Moore, Oxford City Stars’ director of hockey operations, gave a similar opinion to Ms Culshaw when speaking with BBC Radio 5 Live, saying “When you come to 18 there’s a stigma around wearing your neck guard and face cage, it’s almost like to be a man you have to remove those”.
Former Canadian player Hayley Wickenheister also seemingly attacked the stigma issue, by tweeting: “I know it may not pass the ‘cool’ factor but it’s time for mandatory neck protection at every level in hockey. This risk is far too great not to”.
Position in the UK
The English Ice Hockey Association (EIHA) published an update on player safety since Mr Johnson’s death, recognising the need for short, medium and long-term action.
In the short term (immediately), the EIHA has made a ‘strong recommendation’ that players at all levels across the EIHA use an approved Ice Hockey Neck Guard/Protector whilst participating in all on ice activities. This ‘strong recommendation’ is in place until 31 December 2023, after which it will be a mandatory requirement. The reason cited for not making the requirement mandatory with immediate effect is due to anticipated supply issues.
In the medium term (within 12 months), the EIHA will conduct a Player Safety Equipment thorough review considering all aspects of player safety equipment including, but not limited to, the use of helmets, mouthguards/gumshields and facial protection, and the application of International Ice Hockey Federation rules.
In the long term the EIHA has said it will provide members with clear guidance on the ongoing and continuous improvement of Player Safety and their duties within this area.
However, the EIHA is not the governing body for the Elite League – the professional ice hockey league consisting of the top ten teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The governing body for the Elite League is the EHIL, which issued a statement to saying that it will ‘strongly encourage’ players and officials to wear neck guards, with no indication that the use of neck guards will be made mandatory. However, in the notes to editors at the bottom of the section, the EIHL stated ‘We also work closely with Ice Hockey UK, which is the National Governing Body for the sport In the UK and responsible for setting rules for the grassroots and amateur level of the sport in the UK’. Interestingly, Ice Hockey UK have made the use of neck guards compulsory.
The neck guard debate which has arisen from Adam Johnson’s death extends beyond the UK.
The Western Hockey League (the major junior hockey league based in Western Canada and the north-western US) announced it would require players to wear neck guards beginning on Friday 3 November or as soon as teams can get the equipment. The AHL and ECHL, affiliates of the Pittsburgh Penguins (the organisation which Adam Johnson once played for), have also now made it mandatory for players to wear neck guards.
Other international bodies are in discussions on whether any changes are going to be made to the wearing of neck guards, such as the Professional Women’s Hockey League (‘PWHL’). The National Hockey League (‘NHL’), the professional ice hockey league in North America, cannot mandate players to wear the equipment without the agreement of the Players Association. However, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Marty Walsh touched base on Sunday to set up further talks between the league and union about blade safety.
The death of Adam Johnson has been a tragic incident, which has left the ice hockey community devastated. It has re-sparked the debate about how to continually enhance the safety of the sport. As the EIHA have so perfectly written, it is unacceptable for any player to lose their life whilst playing sport.
Christina is a tenant at Mountford Chambers. She accepts instructions across all Chambers’ practice areas, with a principle focus on general crime and sports regulation work.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-shot-of-a-hockey-puck-and-hockey-stick-6847470/
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