Death on the Ice: The Reshaping of Safety Regulations and Player Protection

By: Constanza Leautaud Grajales

Edited by: Emilia MacDonald

Adam Johnson was an American hockey player who was slashed in the neck by another player’s skate during a game in South Yorkshire, England, on October 28th, 2023. Following his death, conversations regarding safety and the changing of the nature of the high-contact sport have been occurring across both hockey leagues, but also nations. 

Hockey’s aggressive nature leaves players highly prone to injury, which in recent history, has led to the implementation of controversial policies that increase mandatory protective measures for the players. Anyone who has sat in the stands during a hockey game knows first-hand how spectators enjoy watching fights on the ice. It can be said that these violent acts bring a thrill to both the player and the spectators, therefore they are heavily encouraged by the crowd yelling encouragement to the players when fighting. Sometimes, a rowdy crowd may even prompt players to instigate fights. When discussing the public’s enjoyment of hockey, most spectators express their enjoyment for the exhibition of skill in the sport. Many of them also admit that it is highly entertaining and adrenaline-inducing when the players display aggression when fighting physically and verbally. If fighting were the issue, why not ban it all together from the sport? Hockey players themselves acknowledge the risk of injury that comes with this sport. And what is more–many admit their liking towards the sport due to its high contact and rough play nature. 

Currently, banning aggression and fighting from competitive hockey is not a realistic option. So how can we realistically create a safer environment for players? After Johnson’s accidental death, an “increased scrutiny of player safety in the sport” has been established. The English Ice Hockey Association has implemented a new mandate which makes neck guards mandatory for all players during in-ice activities starting in 2024. These protective measures were usually reserved for amateurs, but have been in higher demand of use after Johnson’s accident. 

Taking injuries lightly is not an option for elite athletes. An injury can result in a season that is cut short. An injury can end a player’s career–an injury on the ice can end a life. Adam Johnson’s accident demonstrates that this sport has a propensity for both serious injuries and death. Johnson’s death has not only affected England’s regulation of safety and equipment protocols, but it also had repercussions in North America. In Canada, all hockey players, in both male and female leagues, are now required to wear the neck protective guards that the English Ice Hockey Association put into place as of January 2024. Although many feel that neck guards are uncomfortable and overprotective, this mandate was set into place with the ultimate goal to guarantee as much safety as the sport will allow. 

Though many may scoff at the emphasis being placed on player safety, increased protection measures, and the minimization of on ice aggression, it is vital to recognize that the implementation of these measures may save a life. All in all, it can be said that safety in mainstream sports, especially those heavy on physical contact like hockey, should be taken more seriously if the goal is to keep the players well and uninjured. Although it is important to recognize that the physical fights make the sport more entertaining, referees and staff should not allow it to go so far as to life-threatening injuries and players ending up in the hospital constantly. Actionable change is appropriate–and in fact necessary–to prevent uncontrolled fighting from turning an unexpected game into a valuable player’s “last dance.”

References

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/people-playing-ice-hockey-XHTBZpRBoi0

Archie, A. (2023, November 14). Man arrested in the skate death of former NHL player Adam Johnson is released on bail. NPR. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.npr.org/2023/11/14/1212945117/adam-johnson-hockey-death-arrest

CBS News. (2023, December 12). Death of Adam Johnson sparks renewed interest in guard mandates for youth hockey. CBS News. Retrieved January 17, 2024, from https://www.cbsnews.com/minnesota/news/youth-hockey-neck-guard-mandates-adam-johnson-death/

Eaton, P. (2023, December 12). Death of Adam Johnson from skate blade prompts new look at neck guard mandates in youth hockey. CTV News. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.ctvnews.ca/sports/death-of-adam-johnson-from-skate-blade-prompts-new-look-at-neck-guard-mandates-in-youth-hockey-1.6684300

The Economic Times. (2023, November 15). Adam Johnson cause of death: What happened to ice hockey player? The Economic Times. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/us/adam-johnson-death-one-arrested-in-connection-with-ice-hockey-players-accident-what-has-happened/articleshow/105217466.cms?from=mdr