Decades after he nearly died, hockey player asks why neck guards still aren't mandatory
Death of another player during a U.K. pro game in October has renewed debate on mandatory neck guards
The hockey sweater from that night still hangs on the wall of Kim Crouch's basement rec room. So expertly repaired, and cleaned, that you have to look twice to see the jagged line where emergency workers cut it off his blood-soaked torso.
The long, hooked scar on the right side of his neck has faded too. But not the memories.
It was Jan. 5, 1975. Crouch, then 18, was in net for the Junior A Markham Waxers, playing against the Royal York Royals at a rink in North Toronto. As he recalls it, the play was routine. The outcome was not.
"There was a puck entering into our zone. And as a goalie, I raced out, slid on my left side, and as I did, two players jumped over me and one of their skates caught me on the side of the neck," said Crouch.
Black and white images, captured by a local newspaper photographer, show the players suspended in air moments before impact. Then a dazed Crouch, sitting in a spreading pool of his own blood, with the man who saved his life, team trainer Joe Piccininni, desperately working to staunch the flow.
Almost five decades later, Crouch recalls that the emergency surgery lasted three hours, but can't remember how many stitches it took to sew him back up. A case review saved in his scrapbook, details the devastating injuries — extensive muscle and nerve damage, a nick to a vertebrae, the carotid artery completely severed and the jugular vein mostly cut through.
"As you get older, you begin to realize how fortunate you were," said Crouch, now 67. "I was a pretty lucky guy."
A narrow escape, made all the more noteworthy by what came next.
Crouch returned to the ice within a month, wearing what may well have been the first hockey neck guard, designed by his father Ed — then the Whitby, Ont., fire chief — and stitched together by a local seamstress.
While the safety gear got attention and became commercially available, mandatory neck guards still aren't the norm in professional or adult league hockey.
After the latest skate-blade tragedy, the death of Adam Johnson, 29, during a pro game in the U.K in October, that may be changing.
Hockey world has been reluctant
When Ed Crouch debuted his neck guard, A Toronto Star story from the time noted that four young hockey players had already died from neck injuries.
The phone at the Crouch household began to ring with worried parents looking for protective wear for their own kids. "Kim Crouch Collars" became a family business. Kim eventually took it over from his dad. It endured until 2021, when he decided to retire.
The basic design — soon copied by other equipment makers — never changed. Cut-resistant ballistic nylon over foam with a velcro fastener at the back. Lightweight, inexpensive, and effective. Which makes the hockey world's reluctance to fully embrace them all the more frustrating for Crouch.
"I think the leagues, whatever leagues it may be, that aren't requiring neck protection now need to seriously look at making sure it is mandatory," he said.
In the weeks since Adam Johnson's death, 10 Canadian junior leagues have announced new neck guard requirements. While the NHL, and the start-up Professional Women's Hockey League, say they plan to discuss a possible rule change with their players.
"Whether it's something that's mandated directly or on a phased-in basis, that's something we'll discuss with the players' association," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in early November. He noted players have the right to make their own decision, and that the league doesn't "impose equipment changes" without an agreement.
Minor hockey players, up to age 16, have worn neck guards for decades. As has everyone who plays in Quebec, after the province brought in a universal neck guard mandate back in 1992.
'We gotta get it done'
That still leaves a yawning gap in the Canadian system: The hundreds of thousands of adults who play pickup, or beer league hockey, in other provinces and territories.
"The cities, or the provinces, need to put these protections in place," said Emile Therien, a longtime hockey safety advocate and past president of the Canadian Safety Council. "It doesn't make any sense that every other part of your body is covered, but not your throat."
Therien notes that rec players are often the most vulnerable, playing late at night in rinks without trainers, off-ice staff, or even spectators to help or call an ambulance. In a potentially deadly scenario with neck cuts, seconds count.
But change appears to be coming for some rec players.
Canlan Sports, the company that runs Adult Safe Hockey — the country's largest beer league with 65,000 players across four provinces — says a neck guard mandate is on its horizon.
"It's something that keeps you up at night for sure," said Joey St-Aubin, the company president and CEO, about the risk of serious injury or death. "It's on the front burner for us."
The organization plans to consult its player representatives in the coming weeks. And neck guards will likely be required starting with its spring or summer leagues.
"I think that everybody should be wearing them," said St-Aubin. "We gotta get it done."
For Crouch, whose scrapbook details not only his own near miss, but the stories of other players — like Johnson — who weren't as fortunate, the safety gap can't be closed soon enough.
His father died 15 years ago, having devoted decades to the family business and his dream of protecting players.
He says Ed would be disappointed that 49 years after his invention, throat injuries are still happening in hockey.
"But he would also be proud of what he came up with, and how many lives he did save," said Crouch.