Tragic death of high school hockey player Teddy Balkind prompts call for mandatory neck braces

HARTFORD, Conn. The EO Smith-Tolland hockey team got together to discuss the tragic event in their sport last week, one that struck so close to home.

The room fell silent. Then came the most important message young players could receive following the death of Connecticut high school hockey player Teddy Balkind on January 6.

“When we’ve talked about it, it’s an opportunity to remind the kids,” EO Smith-Tolland coach John Hodgson said. “Here’s something you think is extra and you don’t need. It is very rare for something like this to happen, but when it does it can be fatal. We had a moment of silence and then: ‘So let’s make sure we have all our gear on.’”

Balkind, 16, was playing in a junior varsity game for St. Luke’s, a New Canaan-based prep school, last Thursday at Brunswick School in Greenwich when he fell to the ice. Another player near him couldn’t stop and collided with him. The game was stopped and 911 was called.

The tenth grade student was transported to the hospital, where he died as a result of the injury.

Connecticut’s chief medical examiner said Balkind died of an incised neck wound and ruled the death an accident, according to multiple media reports.

The tragedy generated waves of sympathy and support from the global hockey community and calls for change. In the case of the EO Smith-Tolland team and other schools in the state, rules designed to prevent such a tragedy have been in place since 2001.

“Commercially manufactured throat protectors designed specifically for ice hockey are required for all players, including goaltenders during the regular season and tournaments,” the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference rules state.

St. Luke’s and Brunswick play in the Fairchester Athletic Association, which, like most high school conferences, follows USA Hockey and NCAA policy, which recommends rather than requires neck protectors.

“The NCAA doesn’t require a neck on the ice,” said John Hissick, coach at Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford, a member of the Fairchester Athletic Conference and New England Prep School. “And to this point, I can’t honestly say it’s been an issue or even discussed.”

Teuvo Teravainen of the Carolina Hurricanes pays tribute to Connecticut high school student Teddy Balkind, who was killed in a hockey accident last week.

This has changed a lot. Hissick, whose son wears neckwear as required by junior hockey in Connecticut, said talks are already taking place within the conference.

“Honestly, I can’t see how it can’t change,” he said, “(but) as a coach I don’t have the authority to make those decisions… I have to follow the rules that are given to me.”

Over the weekend, Sam Brande, a high school player in Massachusetts and a close friend of Balkind’s, started a Change.org petition asking USA Hockey to make neck guards mandatory.

“I lost one of my best friends due to the lack of player safety rules in USA Hockey,” Brande wrote on the site. “Please consider signing this so we can raise awareness and no one needs to lose a loved one or a life in a preventable accident.”

As of Tuesday morning, the petition had more than 50,000 supporters. Stores that sell hockey gear in the area have seen an increase in customers looking to purchase protective gear.

“There is definitely an influx of families concerned about safety,” said Dan Larochelle of Pure Hockey in West Hartford.

Neck protectors are usually made of a high-impact plastic, such as Lexan or Kevlar, or a ballistic nylon designed to resist cuts. They are lightweight and cover most of the neck, adjusting with velcro at the back. It is not known for sure if Balkind was wearing a throat protector.

“They make us wear helmets, they make us wear gloves, they make us wear cups, they make us wear shin guards,” Brande told News12 Connecticut’s Marissa Altar. “I don’t know why they don’t make us wear neck protectors.”

In Connecticut high school games, players who do not wear proper neck protection are subject to a penalty, usually after a warning. Referees will likely be reminded to take a closer look.

“I haven’t found it to be a big problem with children,” Hodgson said. “Sometimes it’s a minor inconvenience to a high school kid, but if you make it part of the deal, they just go for it. You have something wrapped around your neck, most of us don’t spend our days like this, so you feel it. But you have a body full of equipment, so I don’t think it will have a big impact.”

The danger of playing hockey without throat protection has been well known for more than 30 years.

  • On March 22, 1989, Buffalo Sabers goalie Clint Malarchuk was nearly killed when a skid slashed his throat, severing his carotid artery and partially severing his jugular. The sheer amount of blood on the ice caused several spectators to faint. Sabers track coach Jim Pizzutelli, who had been a US Army combat medic in Vietnam, pinched and held Malarchuk’s neck until medics arrived, saving his life. Many NHL goaltenders now wear neck protectors, but they are not required equipment.
  • Bengt Akerblom, who played in the Swedish Elite League, died when a skateboard cut his neck in 1995.
  • In 2008, Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers suffered a similar, life-threatening injury that required emergency surgery to repair his carotid artery.

  • In 2017, a neck brace appeared to save the life of Canadian teenager Cassidy Gordon, who was injured but not seriously cut, as she was hit in the neck by a skateboard. “No matter how stupid or not cool you think it looks, it’s definitely an important thing to wear because it’s the difference between having an injury that can end your career, even your life, and just being safe,” Gordon told CBC. .

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