Brad Stepan has been on the ice most of his life.
The current vice president of business and hockey operations for the Janesville Jets, he was drafted by the New York Rangers in 1985. His son Derek also played 13 seasons in the National Hockey League, retiring in October.
So when he heard the news that Minnesota native Adam Johnson died after his neck was slashed by a skate during a hockey game in October, his heart sank.
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“I look at it right now, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Boy, am I lucky, I’m lucky I didn’t lose a son, and I’m lucky nothing like that ever happened to me,’” Stepan said.
Currently, the NHL and American Hockey League, the two largest pro hockey leagues in America and Canada, do not mandate players wear neck protection — often known as neck guards — during games. But after Johnson’s death, there has been an increase in the number of players using the protection, including in Wisconsin.
Stepan is now encouraging his players to wear the equipment, and since the incident, he said three players have been wearing neck protection equipment during games.
“The whole situation, is it 100 percent preventable? No, it’s not. But I think we can put a dent in that if guys are wearing some kind of protection,” Stepan said.
Johnson is the second hockey player to die after having his throat slashed by a skate in the last two years. Last year, Teddy Balkind, a high school student, died from a similar injury on the ice. Stepan said skates have become more sharp in recent years, and many players often sharpen skates before and during games.
“Neck guards are worn with the expectation that they will prevent a laceration by providing an adequate barrier between the neck and the errant skate blade,” a 2015 study said. “Device design characteristics provide a cut-resistant material that covers the vulnerable structures in the neck while maintaining an acceptable level of comfort for the player.”
Some leagues are now considering making neck guards mandatory for all players. Following the incident, the English Ice Hockey Association — where Johnson was playing at the time — is now requiring them for all players. USA Hockey is also in the process of recommending potential rule changes regarding neck laceration protection.
There are a number of different neck guards on the market, including one made by Skate Armor, a business owned by Prairie du Sac resident Therese Weiss.
Weiss usually has around 300 neck guards on hand at her business. But in the 48 hours following Johnson’s death, she said she received 3,000 orders. She still has a wait list for the product while she catches up.
“I woke up to a lot of orders, and then it just kept coming, and we ended up having to shut the website down,” Weiss said.
In 2008, Weiss was watching an NHL game with her hockey-playing son when she saw an injury to Florida Panthers player Richard Zedník, who had his throat slashed by his teammate’s skates, losing five pints of blood from the injury.
After her son’s next practice, he came home with an injury to his neck. Although he had a neck guard, he wasn’t wearing it because he found it uncomfortable. Weiss said she then tested her son’s neck guard, and found the fabric uncomfortable and the protection it offered slim — when she took a knife to it, the blade slipped right through.
“I was really surprised by just how rough the outside material was and really how cheaply it was made,” she said.
Ever since then, she’s devoted much of her life to making sure players wear proper neck protection.
“I just don’t understand it,” Weiss said. “I feel like every single part of a hockey player’s body is covered, except for the neck area.”
Milwaukee Admirals Defensemen Adam Wilsby is from Sweden, where neck protection is mandatory. He wore a guard as a kid, but stopped while playing for the Admirals in the American Hockey League.
But after the incident, he started wearing it again.
“I just got here and no one was wearing it, and I was kind of getting used to that, but I don’t mind the neck guard, it’s fine,” Wilsby said after an Admirals practice. “Obviously it’s (neck injury) not that common … but you still want to do everything you can to be safe out there,” he said.
Another Admirals Defenseman, Kevin Gravel, said Johnson’s death was “heartbreaking.” He played against Johnson in the past.
“It never enters your mind that that’s going to happen, and to see that happen is absolutely tragic and heartbreaking,” Gravel said.
He also started to wear a neck guard after Johnson’s death.
“It really puts everything into perspective, so now it’s like anything you can do to prevent that or try to prevent that as best you can is absolutely something worth doing,” Gravel said.
“If it can help, which it obviously can, you’re going to take every measure now to try and protect yourself as best as you can out there,” he added.
Eau Claire native Sam Stange, a senior who plays for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, has been playing hockey since he was 3 years old. He just started to wear a shirt with neck protection through Kevlar.
“Up until a few weeks ago, I had never even tried it,” he said.
After the death, Stange said his coach and equipment manager told players they were going to order some neck protection for players.
“The risk is so high, and it really doesn’t cost anything. You get used to it after a couple of skates, and so it’s just kind of that extra layer of protection,” he said.
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