Neck guards mandatory for high school hockey players after Adam Johnson's death

High school hockey players across the country, including Minnesota, will be required to wear neck guards for all games starting in the 2024-25 season.

The measure was one of five rules proposed by the National Federation of State High School Associations Ice Hockey Rules Committee at its annual meeting in late April. All five rule changes, including making the neck guard mandatory, were accepted by the NFHS Board of Directors and are effective for the upcoming season.

Mandating neck guards, NFHS says, furthers the commitment to risk minimization and health and safety of players. If a player doesn’t have a neck guard or it comes off during game action, they’ll be sent to the bench and can only come back on the ice once it’s fixed. If a player refuses to wear one, play will be stopped and the player will serve a two-minute minor.

The move comes after Hibbing native and former Minnesota-Duluth hockey player Adam Johnson died during an on-ice incident last October in a game in England. He caught a skate blade to his neck during a game, and later died at a hospital. He played in high school for Hibbing/Chisholm.

The other player involved in the incident was arrested a few days later and eventually released on bail.

The Minnesota State High School League confirmed on Thursday the rule does apply to Minnesota high school hockey players, starting this season, as the MSHSL follows NFHS rules.

'It's about damn time'

A former NHL player who had his neck cut during a televised game 35 years ago says a new high school hockey mandate regarding neck guards is a welcome change, but he’s disappointed it took this long.

"It's about damn time," said Clint Malarchuk a former goalie for the Buffalo Sabres.

In 1989, Malarchuk took a blade to the neck during a televised game. Thanks to quick action by team medics, Malarchuk survived the injury but has advocated for neck guards ever since.

"Had I died, maybe they would have implemented this way back then," said Malarchuk. 

The National Federation of State High School Associations announced Thursday the rule change, which mandates high school hockey players nationwide wear neck protection during games. The Minnesota State High School League confirmed it will adopt the change.

The news comes nearly seven months after the on-ice death of Minnesota native Adam Johnson. Johnson was playing professional hockey overseas when another player's skate cut his neck during a game and killed him.

"At the pace that they play now, extra precaution in my mind is the best way to go," he said. "It will save lives."

The NFHS joins USA Hockey, which mandated neck protectors for players under the age of 18 recently. But, the National Hockey League continues to make the protective gear optional.

Malarchuk hopes it doesn’t take another tragedy for the NHL to get on board.

"I don’t know what it will take. Hopefully not another death," he said.