The death of a high school hockey player has sparked a debate over neck guards

Expressions of grief after the death of Teddy Balkind, a high school hockey player in Connecticut, swept the world of ice hockey, from moments of silence before the New England game to tribute in Hockey Night in Canada to hockey sticks gently placed on porches. Manitoba to Minnesota to Maine.

A 16-year-old Balkind and a sophomore at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan died after a player’s skate blade cut his neck in a collision with ice during a game last Thursday in Greenwich, Connecticut. Such fatal incidents are rare, but when they happen, they terrify and evoke a strong sense of “but for God’s sake,” especially among hockey parents. Few know the feeling in the way that Dr. Michael Stewart, the chief medical officer and US safety officer in hockey, does.

Stewart helped write the organization’s policy on neck protection. He also watched his son suffer a similar injury as a defense attorney at a college in Colorado 24 years ago. Mike Stewart survives after 22 stitches close what his father describes as an “almost ear-to-ear” wound.

“It could have been the same result for our own son,” the doctor said of Balkind’s injury. “I would like this young man to receive the injury our son suffered. It brings back many vivid memories and it is very close and dear to my heart. “

The death of Balkind, a 10th grader, shifted attention to the use of neck protection in amateur hockey in the United States.

USA Hockey, the national governing body for sport, recommends that players wear neck guards that cover as much of the neck as possible, but does not oblige them to do so, making the United States somewhat extraordinary on the international hockey scene, despite significant research on the subject.

The governing bodies of hockey in Canada and Sweden impose door guards on amateurs, as well as many European leagues and the International Hockey Federation.

In the United States, whether players must wear neck protection depends on individual hockey associations and supervisory boards. The result is a mix of policies.

The Balkind School, St. Luke’s, and the team’s rival, Brunswick School of Greenwich, play under the rules of the Athletic Council of the New England Preparatory School, which do not require players to wear neck guards.

In contrast, the Connecticut Inter-School Athletics Conference, which sets rules for state high school hockey but not for prep schools, 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,” Stewart said, adding that establishing a mandate is a regular item on the organization’s annual conference – and will certainly be again – when the conference begins. on Thursday.

“It’s very good that a mandate may come,” Stewart said. “Whether this can prevent this from ever happening, whether it will have any effect, I guess remains to be seen.”

Door guards may be the most disliked piece of hockey equipment among players. They are usually made of Kevlar or nylon, foam and velcro, and players, especially children, complain that they are hot and clumsy.

It is unclear whether Balkind was wearing neck protection when he was injured. Michael West, St. Luke’s athletic director, and school spokeswoman Nancy Troeger declined to comment, saying they were focused on giving their community privacy to grieve.

It is also unclear whether a neck guard would prevent injury.

However, more than 63,000 people have signed an online petition launched by a friend of Balkind’s to make door guards a mandatory piece of equipment.

“There seems to be no reason not to need neck guards in the United States, and it seems we had to lose a young hockey player to draw attention to the subject,” said petitioner Sam Brand of Wayland, Massachusetts, who is attending a summer camp with Balkind for years.

The 16-year-old Brande, a serious hockey player, said he started wearing a neck guard last week after Balkind died. “Such an injury seemed impossible to me,” Brande said.

Skate tears are among the worst injuries in the sport. But they are relatively rare, and skate neck tears are even rarer.

A 2008 study of hockey in the United States found that only 1.8 percent of players reported ever being a victim of or witnessing a cut in the neck of a skate while playing. Thirty-three players who reported being cut in the neck received non-life-threatening injuries. About one in four people who were circumcised, 27 percent, wore neck protection.

Overall, 45 percent of 26,342 respondents reported wearing a neck guard on a regular basis, according to a survey that USA Hockey described as the most extensive.

However, the organization later concluded that the study did not provide enough information to support mandatory neck guards.

“To date, there is limited data to describe the prevalence of such a phenomenon, the severity or whether the neck tear protector (neck guard) reduces the risk or severity,” states USA Hockey’s policy on “neck tear protector.”

It also states: “USA Hockey recommends that all players wear a neck tear protector, choosing a design that covers as much of the neck area as possible. Further research and improved standard tests will better determine the effectiveness of neck tear protectors. “

Since then, USA Hockey has documented 13 cases of neck tears caused by skating during a game, or about one a year, according to data provided by the organization.

The organization’s charity, the USA Hockey Foundation, is also funding a handful of studies published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine on various aspects of neck guards, including their effectiveness in preventing cuts and affecting a player’s range of motion. .

Almost all tested neck guards prevented cuts in low power simulations, but all failed in high power simulations.

“If US hockey is extraordinary, it’s that we’ve done more research and spent more time and effort to make neck tears less of a problem than anyone else in the world,” Stewart said. “Not much other research is being done on this.”

Prior to Balkind’s injury, two of the most notorious cases involved NHL players, both of whom survived.

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

In 2008, Florida Panthers striker Richard Zednik suffered a similar injury when his teammate Olli Jokinen lost his balance during a fight for a loose puck along the boards and his skate hit Zednik’s neck.

In 1975, another New England school player, 18-year-old defender James Dragon Jr., bled to death when an opponent’s skate cut his neck during a game in Boston. Nearly 3,000 people attended his funeral.

In 2017, in a girls’ game in Guelph, Ontario, 16-year-old Cassidy Gordon escaped a serious injury after another player’s skate hit her in the neck. He was wearing a neck guard.

“It may have value in preventing neck tears or the severity of neck tears,” Stewart said. “While this is unproven, it certainly makes enough logistical sense that USA Hockey recommends it to all players, and if imposing it would save even one potentially catastrophic injury or death, then I think USA Hockey will be the first to do so.

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