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NHL players have been slow to adopt neck guards.  Why a Hurricanes defenseman wears one anyway
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NHL players have been slow to adopt neck guards. Why a Hurricanes defenseman wears one anyway

To the naked eye, it looks like Dylan Coghlan is wearing a fake turtleneck under his pads, like the European hockey players of yesteryear, Alexei Yashin or Tomas Plekanec. It’s not for style. Anything but. What he’s actually wearing is a high-tech undershirt woven with Kevlar fibers that could save his life.

Coghlan is the only Carolina Hurricanes player to wear neck protection, a hot topic in hockey circles since the death in January of a player in the British professional league after his neck was severed by a skate. That’s always been one of the risks embedded in the game, going back to gruesome, bloody near misses in the NHL that still make the rounds on YouTube, like the one with Clint Malarchuk or Richard Zednik.

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) wears a high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt to protect his neck from a skate cut.  Coghlan talks about his decision to use the Kevlar after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC.  Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.comCarolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) wears a high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt to protect his neck from a skate cut.  Coghlan talks about his decision to use the Kevlar after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC.  Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) wears a high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt to protect his neck from a skate cut. Coghlan talks about his decision to use the Kevlar after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. Robert Willett/[email protected]

When a skate blade whizzed past Coghlan’s throat during an AHL game, close enough to feel the wind in his wake, that was that.

“My mother would hound me about wearing one and I kind of rejected it,” Coghlan said. “My girlfriend asked me a few times and I brushed it off. Everyone kept asking, but now that I’m wearing one now, I’ll probably wear one for the rest of my career.”

This year, following the death of Adam Johnson in England, both the International Ice Hockey Federation and USA Hockey have made neck protection mandatory. But aside from a few high-profile players — like Washington Capitals forward TJ Oshie, whose clothing company Warroad makes the cut-protection undershirt he wears — few NHLers have followed suit, even though almost all of them wear Kevlar-impregnated socks and a pair of Kevlar socks. sleeves around their wrists.

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) shows the Kevlar sleeve he wears to protect his wrist from a skate cut after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett/rwillett@ newsobserver.comCarolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) shows the Kevlar sleeve he wears to protect his wrist from a skate cut after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett/rwillett@ newsobserver.com

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) shows the Kevlar sleeve he wears to protect his wrist from a skate cut after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett/rwillett@ newsobserver.com

Initially, the mid-season hockey supply chain couldn’t keep up with the sudden, new demand for neck protection, whether full undershirts or sleeves that go around the neck and under the shoulder pads. The Hurricanes have several types and brands available for any player looking to add an extra layer of protection. Only Coghlan, who played in one Hurricanes game this season before joining the Hurricanes of the AHL for the playoffs, has chosen to do so.

“You never know,” Coghlan said. “Guys go pretty fast and sometimes you lose the ability to know where your skates are going. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

A personal decision for hockey players

For now, as an outlier for the Hurricanes — he wasn’t at his AHL club, where wearing neck guards was more common — he’s the butt of jokes, like the first players to wear helmets and the first players to wear visors. both of which have long been mandatory. There is inevitably a macho aspect to it: not wanting to appear vulnerable or admit weakness.

But it’s also a deeply personal and professional question for hockey players, whose careers may depend on the smallest margin of performance at the narrowest, farthest end of the bell curve, and who are averse to changes that could affect that. If a neck gaiter limits their ability to turn their head, or hinders their ability to regulate their body temperature, who’s to say it won’t make a difference for an elite athlete at this level?

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) shows off the high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt he wears to protect his neck from a skate cut after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett /rwillett@ newsobserver.comCarolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) shows off the high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt he wears to protect his neck from a skate cut after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett /rwillett@ newsobserver.com

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) shows off the high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt he wears to protect his neck from a skate cut after practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC Robert Willett /rwillett@ newsobserver.com

European players are more familiar with neck guards, most grew up wearing them, but they also took the opportunity not to wear them when they came to North America. As long as players believe that that little bit of mobility, that little bit of freedom, makes a competitive difference in an arena where the smallest advantage can mean an extra goal or an extra win (or an extra million), that will remain the case.

So it’s much easier for an outsider to ask, “Why take the risk?” In a fast-moving, physical, violent sport like hockey, players are constantly performing a personal, internal calculation, balancing the risks they take with their health and their lives every time they step on the ice. The razor-sharp blades on their feet are almost the least of it. Nearly all players wear Kevlar socks that protect an area prone to skating wounds (and the Achilles tendon). Some wear Kevlar wrist sleeves that protect the area above their gloves, which look like large, gray wristbands.

Even that is a balancing act. Jaccob Slavin started wearing wrist sleeves this season, but he noted that they make him significantly hotter when he plays and practices. So he’s willing to go so far, but not as far as his neck. At least not with this iteration of the gear.

“My younger brother (Josiah) wore it all year in the AHL,” Slavin said. “I’m not against it. But I think it should also be comfortable.”

Ultimately, both helmets and visors were only mandated for players entering the NHL, and inevitably so will neck protection, especially as younger players grow up wearing them. The Hurricanes recently received new protective gear to try, from a company called Duzter; the stiffened neck and Velcro straps on the back will likely deter any NHLer from using it, though it would probably be ideal for kids or non-professionals.

Either way, the next generation has been the main focus, and for good reason. NHL players are fortunate to be near expert medical care at all times, trainers armed with portable defibrillators for heart problems and trained to deal with life-threatening cuts. The Toronto Maple Leafs staff even saved the life of a rec-league player this winter, who happened to be cut off while playing on their practice court. But there’s a long list of other players who haven’t been so lucky, including Johnson and a 2022 prep-school player from Connecticut.

Still, as an organization, the Hurricanes have encouraged their players to wear as much protective equipment as possible, not only around their necks, but also around their wrists and calves. After Johnson’s death, the Hurricanes brought in all the neck guards approved by the league for players to try, and a few did so during practice, but none permanently.

“It’s probably something you’ll see more and more players wearing as time goes on,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. “Especially in the summer, when they skate with this kind of equipment on before camp, they really get used to it.

“One complaint with the neck pads is that they overheat, they feel warm in them, but by the time we get through this year and get ready for next year, there will be so many more options for players. Multiple companies are working on it every day, so someone is going to make a success of it, and eventually you’ll see more and more players wearing it.”

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) talks with assistant coach Tim Gleason during practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Coghlan wears a high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt to protect his neck from a possible skate cut.  Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.comCarolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) talks with assistant coach Tim Gleason during practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Coghlan wears a high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt to protect his neck from a possible skate cut.  Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15) talks with assistant coach Tim Gleason during practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Coghlan wears a high-tech Kevlar collared undershirt to protect his neck from a possible skate cut. Robert Willett/[email protected]

Coghlan wasn’t the only player on his AHL team to add the extra layer of safety this season, and he said he would support an effort by the NHLPA to mandate neck protection for players entering the league. If nothing else, that could cut down on some of the ribbing he uses in the locker room. One of the two shirts he rotates has been hidden by his teammates in the past; during practice on Thursday, Brendan Lemieux tried to pull it off Coghlan’s neck.

“Being the only guy who wears one, I kind of get it,” Coghlan said. “It’s all out of love and good jokes, but it just makes me feel safe. I know it makes my mother happy, my father happy and my girlfriend happy.”

For now, he’s willing to take the slings and arrows if it means also being protected from skate blades.

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