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A new push for hockey neck guards

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A tragic hockey accident in October reinvigorated conversations about whether hockey players should wear neck guards. In the coming months, both the NCAA and the NHL will discuss whether to mandate the equipment. Not everyone is convinced there's a need, but advocates and companies are forging ahead creating the protective gear. Evan Casey of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

EVAN CASEY, BYLINE: At University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Panther Arena, the Milwaukee Admirals are chasing hockey pucks on the ice during a team practice. Players are wearing helmets, visors, shin pads and bulky hockey gloves. Most aren't wearing neck guards, but two are, including veteran Kevin Gravel.

KEVIN GRAVEL: I think everyone, at the end of the day, wants to do what they can to protect themselves, and right now, wearing a neck guard is, I think, beneficial for how fast the game is and what - you know, what can happen on the ice.

CASEY: Admirals defenseman Adam Wilsby is from Sweden, where neck guards are already mandatory. He grew up wearing one. And now he doesn't even notice it's on most games.

ADAM WILSBY: Not really, not really - you're so focused on the game, so you kind of just don't think of it.

CASEY: Everyone in the hockey world knows about Adam Johnson, the former NHL player and Minnesota native who died last October after a skate slash his throat during a game. In 2022 a high schooler in Connecticut, Teddy Balkind, also died from a similar injury on the ice. Neither were wearing neck guards. Advocates say the equipment should be worn by all players and made mandatory by pro leagues. Erik Martinson is a chairperson of the Ice Hockey Rules Committee for the NCAA. That committee, which oversees college teams, recommends players wear neck guards, and Martinson says they'll be discussing a possible mandate in the coming months.

ERIK MARTINSON: Are neck guards the answer or not? Those are the things that we're talking through within the committee.

CASEY: In the meantime, companies are getting ready to fill any orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCISSORS SNIPPING)

CASEY: A seamstress working for Wisconsin-based Skate Armor is sewing and cutting fabric and rubber tabs as she creates a neck guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE STITCHING)

CASEY: Owner and hockey mom Terry Weiss says sales exploded following Johnson's death. She thinks the equipment should be mandatory for all players.

TERRY WEISS: If you look at a hockey player's ensemble - their uniform, basically - every part of their body is covered, even if it's just by a piece of fabric, except for the neck. And that's the most vulnerable part, really, that is exposed - completely exposed.

CASEY: Still, it may take some convincing. A USA hockey survey revealed 27% of neck lacerations occurred to players who already had neck guards on. Charles Popkin has been around hockey all of his life. He's a consultant for G8RSkin Ice, a new neck guard company. He says players are often hesitant to wear new safety equipment on the ice.

CHARLES POPKIN: Hockey's, you know, been a little reluctant on maybe some of the common-sense safety stuff - takes a little bit longer to set in or implement.

CASEY: That's long been an issue in hockey. Helmets weren't even mandated in the NHL until 1979. And NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says any mandate will require approval from the players' association.

GARY BETTMAN: We're working cooperatively with - there's a lot of studying that's been going on. I think ultimately, we may get there.

CASEY: That discussion will continue on into the new year in an effort to prevent any more tragic accidents on the ice. For NPR News, I'm Evan Casey in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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