Hockey Player's Death Jumpstarted Work on Protective Equipment

The design and production of cut-proof neck guards still need even more work.

Skates sit in a Conicity Technologies’ grinding machine designed to remove tiny burrs from the metal blades, at the Washington Capitals NHL hockey team practice facility in Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 28, 2023.
Skates sit in a Conicity Technologies’ grinding machine designed to remove tiny burrs from the metal blades, at the Washington Capitals NHL hockey team practice facility in Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 28, 2023.
AP Photo/Stephen Whyno

The death of American hockey player Adam Johnson from a skate cut to the neck during a game in England has led to plenty of talk about how to prevent such injuries, including a new mandate for young players in the United States.

It has also opened the door for new technology when it comes to on-ice protection from skate blades.

The gear already widely available for wrist and leg protection is fairly modern, though nothing guarantees safety. Columbus Blue Jackets rookie Adam Fantilli over the weekend was cut by a skate blade in the back of his left leg, causing him to miss the rest of that game and Tuesday's game as well. Fantilli was wearing Kevlar socks, but the blade sliced through.

The design and production of cut-proof neck guards still need even more work.

"This is this is an opportunity for us to come up with better cut-resistant materials, better designs to cover the vulnerable anatomic areas," said Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, which on Sunday approved a neck guard mandate for players under 18 and others in junior, boys or girls classifications up to age 20. "There is a market for these materials and devices, so companies are now kind of jumpstarted to not only increase production but to come up with better designs and materials."

Protecting players from their razor-sharp blades has taken decades and often followed terrifying incidents, including the 1989 throat slash of goaltender Clint Malarchuk and a similar injury to Richard Zednik in 2008. Wrists, calves, Achilles tendons, even the torso — are all at risk.

After Philadelphia's Claude Giroux was cut in the back of his left leg in 2015 and left the ice with blood pouring out, then-teammate Carlo Colaiacovo said general manager Ron Hextall decided the next day every player would need to wear cut-proof socks.

"The rest of my career, that's all I wanted to wear, was cut-resistant socks," said Colaiacovo, who now works as an ambassador for Daredevil Hockey, which has been making cut-proof gear for more than a decade.


Gianfranco Talarico started the company after watching a youth player get sliced in the thigh by a skate blade, just missing a femoral artery. Talarico has many times since cited research that found lacerations — often to the face, presumably from sticks as well as skates — to be a leading cause of emergency room visits among ice hockey players in the U.S. from 1990-2006.

"People think that these types of injuries are flukes and that they're rare," Talarico said. "With the medical data that that's available out there, these things are far more common than any other injury."

Hockey Canada has mandated neck guard protection for youth players for three decades. The death of Connecticut high school player Teddy Balkind from a skate cut to the neck in 2022 brought the conversation back to the forefront. Johnson, a former NHL player with Pittsburgh, dying at age 29 in the same manner in October led to several of his contemporaries to don neck guards.

Washington forward T.J. Oshie, whose company Warroad Hockey produces cut-proof equipment, was one of them and also got several messages last fall from those around the sport interested in adding more.

Bauer Hockey CEO Ed Kinnaly said there have been "considerable advancements in protection and comfort" in gear his company and others make, including base layer shirts with integrated neck protection that stays in place. Each costs about $75.


Other entrepreneurs are entering the market. Carter Hogg, a 20-year-old college athlete who invented a head covering designed to reduce concussion risk after his brother suffered a career-ending head injury, has expanded his product line to include Kevlar neck protection. G8RSkin Ice, developed with the help of USA Hockey team physician Dr. Charles Popkin and Dr. Andrew Saleh, head medical team physician for the American Hockey League's San Diego Gulls, is in the process of getting certified for use.

"That's a really vulnerable area," Popkin said, citing coverage from the jaw mandible down to the cricoid cartilage near the top of the trachea. "Because it's a balaclava, it actually covers all of (that area), and that's the only one on the market that goes up that high and offers that kind of protection."

Bill Shaffer and son Luke, who come from a metal-cutting background, have designed and built a machine they say can dramatically reduce the cutting qualities of skate blades while also keeping them sharp.

"(Skate) blades are not supposed to cut anything," said Shaffer, the founder of Conicity Technologies outside Pittsburgh, which has among other jobs helped Lockheed Martin sharpen tools made for F-35 airplanes. "They're supposed to glide. Steak knives are supposed to cut."

The machine uses filament brushes with diamond to remove burrs in a way that hand stone grinding cannot. Shaffer pulled a finished skate out of the machine during a demonstration for The Associated Press and brushed it up against his face and arms with no damage done.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, Denver University, Michigan State and Penn State are among the teams using the technology. Longtime Denver equipment manager Nick Meldrum said he was "all in" on the machine after learning the tech is used in medical situations.

"That's kind of where the light went off in my head that maybe this is something that is legit and able to do it," Meldrum said.

The International Ice Hockey Federation announced in December it will mandate neck guards at all levels of tournaments it runs. The NHL currently does not have a mandate, and it would be subject to negotiations between the league and the players' union.

There's no way to eliminate skate blade lacerations entirely. But the push is on in the wake of Johnson's death.

"It has really, really hit a nerve with a lot of people on things we can do to make sure that situation never happens again," Colaiacovo said. "It is something that happens more than what people think. And there's there's a way to get ahead of it, which is what we're trying to do."

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