SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Rob Kittay believes hockey is still a safe sport and supports the technology that has made the game safer – including neck guards. 

Kittay, a Minnesota native and longtime high school hockey coach in South Dakota, said the conversation about neck guards and safety has picked up since a player died after a skate hit his neck during a professional hockey league game in England. 

“The conversation gets started and needs to get started,” Kittay told KELOLAND News. “Every time when we played a Canadian team, it looked like they’re wearing turtlenecks. But of course, then you realize they wear neck guards.” 

Kittay spoke to KELOLAND News in his capacity as someone with a lot of hockey experience. He serves on the USA Hockey Board of Directors and serves on the South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association Board but stressed his comments on the topic of safety were not any official positions or represented by either hockey organizations.  

Currently, neck guards are not required in many youth, high school, college and professional leagues in the United States, but USA Hockey strongly recommends a neck laceration protector for all players.   

“USA Hockey recommends that all players wear a neck laceration protector, choosing a design that covers as much of the neck area as possible,” the USA Hockey recommendation said. “Further research & improved standards testing will better determine the effectiveness of neck laceration protectors.” 

Augustana men’s hockey coach Garrett Raboin said requiring neck guards is something the Vikings have looked into. 

“Right now, it’s their call as to whether or not they use neck protection,” Raboin said. “I have children of my own in hockey. When you see something like that happen, it’s scary. You do pause and think, ‘Why are we not already wearing neck protection?’ You can’t come up with many good reasons.”

The Elite Ice Hockey League in England described the play as “a freak accident” and has suspended games until this upcoming weekend.  

Kittay said he has not watched the play that resulted in the death of Adam Johnson, a former college hockey player at Minnesota-Duluth and former NHL player with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are in the process of mandating neck protection for minor league affiliates and urge NHL players to do the same. 

Any neck protection mandate at the NHL level can’t come without approval of the NHL Players’ Association. Kittay reflected on how face masks are common in the sport of hockey now when they weren’t when he played in high school. He said freak accidents happen in baseball, football and other sports. 

“We buy $300 hockey sticks and you make a determination on how good a helmet you want and I’m not sure what neck protection would cost but if it’s $20 to wear a neck guard, why not?” Kittay said. “Until it becomes a requirement, every parent needs to just kind of make that decision. It’s not that big a deal because I don’t think the cost is there. One death is too many.” 

Kittay said safety is always the main point of emphasis with youth hockey and all levels of hockey. He said many hockey officials and hockey fans are still in shock of the sudden death of someone while playing the sport. He said often people look to USA Hockey for rule changes or sometimes local leagues will make the discussion beforehand. 

“I don’t have my crystal ball functioning right now, but let’s spend a little bit of money for neck guards just in case,” Kittay said. 

Hockey Headquarters had plenty of neck guards on display in its Sioux Falls store located near the Sanford Pentagon. Owner Bert Post said neck guards come in a variety of different ways and some cost as low as $20. There’s also hockey shirts that come with neck guards attached. 

Other sporting goods stores and online retailers sell neck guards too.