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VOORHEES — A few key Philadelphia Flyers players are going to look just a little bit different on Saturday when they hit the ice to face the Vegas Golden Knights.
No, it’s not the mustaches that many of the players have grown out for the month of November. It’s a new piece of a equipment that all of Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim and Cam Atkinson tested out at practice on Friday: a neck guard.
Neck guards have been a part of hockey for years, particularly in youth leagues; Atkinson and Konecny recalled using them in their younger days. But the recent tragic passing of former NHLer Adam Johnson — whose throat was cut by the skate blade of an opponent during an October 28 EIHL game in England — understandably reopened the conversation regarding neck guards and their limited usage among NHL players.
“It had always been something in the back of my mind,” Konecny admitted after practice on Friday. “I think everyone’s thought about it. Just never really acted on it. And unfortunately, it’s one of those things (where) something happens and scares you like that.”
So when the Flyers hit the ice for practice today, Konecny — along with teammates Atkinson and Sanheim — was sporting a neck guard, trying it out for the first time in years, and gauging whether he’d be willing to wear it in games.
“Obviously a freak accident, (it) could happen to any one of us on any given night,” Sanheim said. “If we can take precautions and not have that happen, I think that’d be a good thing.”
The neck guard that all three players tested isn’t a standalone piece of equipment. It’s attached to an undershirt that they can wear underneath their jerseys, almost akin to a turtleneck, except the reinforced neck portion can be tightened and loosened at the back of the neck via a Velcro strap.
So how did it go for them?
“I’m a big feel guy too, so I was actually pleasantly surprised how comfortable (it was),” Atkinson reported.
“I didn’t notice it at all,” Konecny added.
In fact, the test went so well that both Atkinson and Konecny confirmed that they expect to don the neck guard — courtesy of Warroad Hockey Apparel — in tomorrow’s game versus the Golden Knights. Sanheim will have to wait, given that his neck guard was merely a sample (via Daredevil Hockey) which he’ll need to send back. But after making it through the initial breaking-in period on Friday, he expects that once he does receive one that he can actually keep, he’ll be donning the neck guard as well in games.
“It’s a little bit of adjustment, because you’re used to having nothing around your neck,” Sanheim noted. “But once you get out there and start skating around and practicing, it didn’t take too long to get used to it.”
Even after the Johnson tragedy, however, neck guard adoption is far from universal, both in the NHL at large and in the Flyers’ locker room specifically; after all, only three players today wore them, not all 24 skaters on the ice. For now, it remains an optional piece of equipment, not a mandated one.
Konecny noted that many players may have bad memories of wearing less advanced neck guards from their younger days. Atkinson wore a version as a kid, but ditched the gear in high school and college. The old guards could be itchy and hot, Konecny recalled, and the Velcro could be irritating.
And then, of course, there’s the less rational but undeniable real point of hesitancy for NHLers.
“Maybe guys don’t think it’s cool,” Atkinson guessed.
Sanheim was of the belief that any lingering reticence was more about potential comfort than about looking one’s best at the rink, though.
“I think a lot of people are more worried about how they feel, and if it’s gonna affect their game, moreso than appearance,” he said.
For Sanheim, Atkinson and Konecny, however, that’s no reason to put off adding it to their equipment repertoire, with the latter two making it clear their reasoning is very much influenced by the fact they they both have children and want to do all they can to ensure they’ll be around for their kids for decades to come — in other words, long after their playing careers are over.
“I just look at it from the standpoint of, the amount of years playing hockey compared to being a dad,” Konecny said. “For me, it’s a no-brainer to put it on.
“I have a wife and kids at home and to me, it’s like, ‘Why would I not?’”
Past injuries in their hockey careers came to mind for the trio as well. Sanheim recalled an incident in juniors when a skate came up and nicked him just under his neck, right above the shoulder pads. Konecny cited a recent play, when he tripped just as a player in front of him was launching from a stopped position, and the back of that player’s skate caught Konecny in the visor.
Atkinson’s injury was the most gruesome. Back in 2014, when he was playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets, he was chasing down Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler when Kesler’s skate kicked back and sliced Atkinson’s face, getting under his visor enough to cut through his eyelid and require 70 stitches to address. Atkinson actually worried that he had lost sight in his right eye entirely, when in reality, it was his cut eyelid that was blocking his line of vision. The eyelid was repaired; the scar on Atkinson’s face remains.
In truth, the biggest factor keeping more NHL players from testing out one of the new-look neck guard options isn’t fear of discomfort, or an aversion to losing coolness points in the locker room. It’s been availability, as hockey players across hundreds of teams and leagues all over the world have snapped them up, in response to Johnson’s death. Sanheim, after all, is an NHL player making millions of dollars per year, and it took him three weeks to get even a temporary sample from his company of choice. Atkinson relayed a story he heard from another company that their back orders won’t be completely fulfilled until February.
“That’s how much people – NHL teams, youth league, college – are ordering them,” Atkinson noted.
And while there may only be three Flyers trying them out so far, both Sanheim and Konecny reported that there were more players on the team who want to give the neck guard a shot, and just haven’t been able to secure one as of yet.
“Companies are trying to produce it as quickly as they can,” Sanheim said. “If we can get it, I think a lot of guys will start wearing it.”
In the interim, however, Sanheim and fellow team leaders Atkinson and Konecny wanted to set an example for the young players on the team — to show them that if they choose to wear one in the future, they won’t be the subject of jokes or ridicule in the room.
“I think if you can get some of the older guys on board, it probably makes it a lot easier to kind of push it forward with some of the other guys and make it so it’s gonna be a team thing, hopefully eventually that we can have every guy wearing it,” Sanheim said. “Because I think that’s where it’s gonna go to, I think, I think that’s where it needs to go to.”
For now, neck guards aren’t mandatory at the NHL level, and presumably won’t be, at least through the end of the season, given the supply issues and the fact that the NHLPA will want to negotiate any proposed equipment requirement changes with the league before they take effect. But expect to see Konecny and Atkinson wearing their neck guards in the meantime, with Sanheim soon to follow.
“You see more and more freak accidents unfortunately happen. If this is going to save lives, then why not?” Atkinson said.
“It’s tough to cover all the bases and make sure everyone’s 100 percent safe. But, you just do what you can do,” Konecny added. “And even if this isn’t a mandatory thing, you can still make a personal choice to put it on.”