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Hockey neck guard bill turns to wider look at sport safety

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A Connecticut state lawmaker who’s also a certified athletic trainer said Tuesday she wants a working group to examine concerns about student athletes’ safety equipment, after a 10th-grade hockey player was fatally injured during a game last month.

Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, had initially called for legislation to have all student hockey players wear a neck guard or similar protective device. She now says a wider approach to updating state law would be more useful. The Connecticut Athletic Trainers’ Association has made the same recommendation.

“Having all the experts and stakeholders weigh in to make well-thought-out decisions to help keep our student athletes safe in the best, most productive way, so they can continue to play the sports they love safely” would best serve student athletes,” she said.

Klarides-Ditria’s comments were included in written testimony submitted to the General Assembly’s Committee on Children, which held a public hearing Tuesday on a committee bill that would prevent, as of Oct. 1, an “operator of a youth ice hockey activity or an intramural or interscholastic ice hockey event” from allowing 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 Jan. 6 hockey game. The head of Balkind’s school said in a recent letterthat the injury occurred while the student was skating upright and “through no fault of anyone’s, or any lack of control.”

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

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

However, the bill is opposed by the Sports Medicine Committee of the Connecticut State Medical Society, which says there isn’t sufficient medical evidence to support the proposal. In written testimony, the committee noted how USA Hockey, the governing body of organized hockey in the U.S., recommends but does not mandate neck guards. Also, the committee said research shows the majority of hockey-related neck lacerations are superficial, and available neck protectors don’t eliminate the risk of laceration from a skate blade.

The medical society committee also raised concerns that neck protectors can have a negative impact on the range of motion of a player’s spine. Also, some protectors can shrink after washing and ultimately become less effective.

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

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