SUNRISE — Ever since the tragic death of Adam Johnson, there has been a lot of discourse around wearing neck protection in the NHL — and it has extended into the Florida Panthers locker room.
Johnson, a former Pittsburgh Penguins forward who had been playing in England for the Nottingham Panthers, died after his neck was cut with a skate during a game.
“It’s a very serious thing,” Florida captain Sasha Barkov told Florida Hockey Now. “If you have that option, you should really consider it.”
With hits often sending players flying with their skates airborne, many players around the league have already made the switch.
Players around the league, like Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jake Walman, Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie and Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson, among others, have already worn a neck guard in NHL games at this point.
“Hockey players are very particular with their gear,” Walman told Detroit Hockey Now. “Like me, I don’t really like trying new things but obviously for this reason it’s different. Yeah, comfort but protection is first.”
The NHL has not made neck protection mandatory yet, but other leagues have made the move.
Of course, the feasibility of such a move is tough with many companies like Oshie’s Warroad hockey company are out of them and are rushing to refill their stock.
The Panthers have played three games since Johnson’s tragic passing on Oct. 28 and nobody has worn a neck guard yet, but there has been some debate around the locker room about it.
“I think you are going to see more and more of it as the year goes on and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up becoming something that’s mandatory,” Evan Rodrigues said.
“Kids wear it, I wore it growing up, and I think it will become a thing that will become mandatory like visors now. You definitely want to protect yourself and I know almost every guy in the room now wears the cut protection wrist guards, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a matter of time guys start putting on neck guards.”
The NHL had conversations with players strongly encouraging them to wear protective wrist guards and socks after a scary incident involving Evander Kane getting cut in the wrist brought the issue to the league’s attention.
“It’s new to me, it’s something I’ve never used before and I am trying to get that in,” Barkov said.
“I think there’s a lot of different ones on the market already on the market as an option for us. Everyone’s a grown man and they know what to do. If they want to wear it, they will. If they don’t, it’s their option.”
Panthers coach Paul Maurice was playing hockey before visors became mandatory and saw his career cut short when a puck hit his eye after an opponent’s slap shot deflected off of a stick.
He did not lose the eye, but he suffered central and peripheral vision loss that ended his playing career.
“I was one of three guys who lost sight in their eyes in the Ontario Hockey League in 1984. I was one of them and visors were in the league the next year,’’ Maurice said.
“The players now, they wouldn’t think to go on the ice without one, but when I was 7-years-old, you didn’t wear a visor; you had a strap-on mouthguard and that was it.
”Nobody hated their kids then, we just didn’t have the technology to do it.”
With comfort being a serious topic of contention surrounding adding new protective equipment, it has been a big adjustment for all who have tried them out.
“I’ve been trying to get used to them in practice,” Barkov said of the wrist guards.
“In the games, for me, it was important for me to try to be able to wear them. … you want to be able to wear as much protection as possible. Same thing with the neck guard, you should at least try and consider it.”
Technology has advanced to a point where wrist guards are built into some undershirts and are lightweight enough to not hinder their game.
It was something that was not available to a lot of players in the past.
When Richard Zednik cut his carotid artery during a game at Buffalo while with the Panthers in 2008, a number of Florida players briefly tried wearing the neck guards.
In time, even Zednik went back to not wearing one upon his return.
“They now have things they can put on their wrist and they can put on their ankles that are cut resistant that was not available to these guys,” Maurice said.
“For a long time, guys wouldn’t wear socks in their skates because they like the way that feels. Now we have the technology to give the player the opportunity. If you’ve never been cut and hate the way it feels, I understand not wanting to wear them, but as the technology advances and guys don’t mind wearing them, more and more safety features will come in.”
Barkov wore a neck guard for a large portion of his junior career growing up in Finland.
The Finnish League requires one, for advertising rather than protection per Barkov, and it was something he got used to before being selected second overall by the Panthers in the 2013 NHL Draft.
“You will get used to anything if you just wear it,” Barkov said.
“If you haven’t been wearing a neck guard for 20-to-30 years of your career, it is going to be harder to get used to. But if you are a young player and you are already wearing one or are from Europe where it’s mandatory, I would highly consider wearing it here as well.”
Maurice, even after his injury, that players should have the right to choose whether or not they want to wear a neck guard.
“I always like when the player has the individual right to choose for himself on just about every issue,” he said.
“This is not an event we see much at home, thankfully, but what we saw is how catastrophic it could be. So I would encourage anybody at any level if you find a piece of equipment that keeps you safer on the ice, you should absolutely wear it.
“At the same time, there are places for players to make their own decisions on how they want to protect themselves and they have the right to do it.”
Players are wary that adding more protection will help them stay available for more games — which is a huge selling point to them.
As the technology advances and more stock is available in stores, it may only be a matter of time before someone on the Panthers wears a neck guard.
“There are a lot more options and when you see it more and more and you start to get worried, guys want to protect themselves,” Rodrigues said.
“You don’t want to lose games to an innocent skate blade to the wrist or whatever it might be, so you want to protect yourself as much as you can and I think you’ll start to see it more and more.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS @ WASHINGTON CAPITALS
- When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: Capital One Arena, Washington D.C.
- TV/Streaming: TNT/HBO Max
- Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932; NHL/Panthers App
- Last Season: Panthers won 3-0
- This Season: @Washington Wednesday; @Florida Feb. 8, Feb. 24
- All-time regular season series: Washington leads 67-46-12, 9 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Carolina, 7 p.m.