Connecticut hockey neck guard bill turns to broader look at sports safety

A Connecticut state legislator, also a certified athletic trainer, said Tuesday she wants a task force to look into concerns about student-athlete safety equipment, after a 10th grade hockey player year was fatally injured in a game last month.

Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, originally called for legislation that all student hockey players wear a neck guard or similar protective device. She now says a broader approach to updating state law would be more helpful. The Connecticut Athletic Coaches Association made the same recommendation.

“The fact that all experts and stakeholders are stepping in to make thoughtful decisions to help keep our student-athletes safe in the most effective and productive way, so they can continue to play the sports they love safely “would best serve student-athletes,” she says.

Klarides-Ditria’s comments were included in written testimony submitted to the General Assembly Children’s Committee, which held a public hearing Tuesday on a committee bill that would, effective October 1, prevent an “operator of a youth ice hockey activity or an intramural activity or interscholastic ice hockey event” to allow a child to participate unless the child is wearing a protective neck guard.

Benjamin Edward “Teddy” Balkind, 16, died after his neck was cut by a skate during a hockey game on Jan. 6. Balkind’s school principal said in a recent letter that the injury occurred while the student was skating upright and “through no fault of anyone or lack of control”.

Legislation calling for mandatory neck guards has received a mixed response. The Connecticut Independent Schools Association supports the bill. Rick Branson, the organization’s executive director, said in written testimony submitted to the children’s committee that many of CAIS’s 89 schools and their sports associations now recommend or require neck guards.

“We recognize that schools cannot eliminate all risks to students and student-athletes, but this legislation is appropriate action for student safety,” he wrote.

However, the bill is opposed by the Connecticut State Medical Society Sports Medicine Committee, which says there is insufficient medical evidence to support the proposal. In written testimony, the committee noted how USA Hockey, the governing body for organized hockey in the United States, recommends but does not mandate neck guards. Additionally, the committee said research shows that the majority of hockey-related neck lacerations are superficial and available neck guards do not eliminate the risk of a laceration from a skate blade.

The medical society committee also raised concerns that neck guards can negatively impact a player’s spinal range of motion. Also, some protectants may shrink after washing and eventually become less effective.

The group called for further research into the effectiveness of neck braces and recommended the establishment of a task force, including members of the medical society, to further examine the issue.