Editorial: Skating tragedy can inspire change beyond hockey

Teddy Balkind folding a flag.

Teddy Balkind folding a flag.

Contributed photo / Hearst Connecticut Media

Editor's Note: Since this story was published, Greenwich police have clarified the circumstances of Teddy Balkind's injury. Police say Balkind was upright and on his skates when an opposing player's leg was in the air and a skate hit his neck.

Making conditions safer for athletes never happens quickly.

The tragedy of Teddy Balkind should help other athletes, and not just those on the rink.

Teddy died last week playing ice hockey for the St. Luke’s junior varsity team in New Canaan. He fell onto the ice, a common occurrence in the sport. A skate blade caught the sophomore’s neck, a freak accident.

The cliché of hockey is that players brawl. Teddy’s death illustrated the deep bond between those who love the sport, as youth players and NHL lineups alike are mourning his loss.

Sam Brande took immediate action by sharing on Change.org that, “I lost one of my best friends due to lack of player safety rules in USA Hockey.” He launched a petition to make neck guards mandatory in the sport’s governing body. In two days he collected more than 35,000 signatures.

That won’t guarantee change. Athletes have resisted mandates on safety equipment since the origins of modern sports. Baseball players scorned at gloves in the 1800s. Major League Baseball didn’t mandate helmets until 1971. It took another 22 years to add the ear flap.

Football helmets weren’t required until the 1940s. Broken teeth and noses led to face masks, starting with a single bar that became a grill.

As for hockey, it took an illegal check that almost killed Toronto Maple Leaf Ace Bailey in 1933 for helmets to start covering heads. Bailey’s career ended, and his No. 6 was the first number in professional sports to be retired. Thirty-five years passed and Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars died after landing on his head in a collision. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and remains the only NHL player to die from injuries suffered during play. Still, it took another 11 years for helmets to become mandatory.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which calls the shots for most (not all) high schools in the state, has been requiring neck protectors for at least 20 years. They are not required for professionals, or college players. Drop down to youth leagues, which begin not that long after kids can walk, and the rules vary depending on the league.

Cross the border to Canada, where hockey passes for a religion, and the neck protectors are a mandate in youth leagues.

It hasn’t been publicly revealed if Teddy was wearing a neck protector in Thursday’s game against Greenwich’s Brunswick School, but a run on them has been reported in the wake of his death. That doesn’t mean athletes will wear them.

Mandating them sounds reasonable, but it can’t be the end of the discussion. When it comes to ensuring the safety of athletes, the clock never runs out.

Safety discussions need to be more present in all sports. Hockey and football are commonly recognized as the most perilous of youth sports, but concussions occur in everything from soccer to wrestling to cheerleading.

History reveals that progress is slow regarding safety in sports. A fitting tribute to Teddy Balkind would be to spur change in hockey, and beyond.