Erik Karlsson wasn't wearing Kevlar socks when his Achilles was torn by Matt Cooke's skate. (Getty Images)
Had a very interesting conversation with Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier Thursday night and no, it wasn’t about his team’s coaching situation. It began with me asking whether players’ skates are too sharp these days and went off on a tangent about equipment and safety. Clearly, Regier has given this subject a lot of thought and he doesn’t like what he sees.
“We’re in a place where protection isn’t the first priority,” Regier said. “These accidents are no longer freak accidents. They’re happening too frequently.”
Feel free to be flabbergasted by the previous statement. I know I was. All I ever hear these days is how players are now fearless, particularly when it comes to shot blocking, because they’re so well protected by the equipment they wear. But in light of the serious lacerations to Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators and Zach Redmond of the Winnipeg Jets, clearly there are some spots where that logic does not apply.
I thought it might be because players insist on having their skates so sharp, but Regier said it’s in part because the new Reebok socks that all players wear now aren’t nearly as durable and protective as the wool ones players used to wear.
(This was backed up by an NHL trainer who has 25 years of experience. He told me he doesn’t ever remember a player on his team being cut by a skate when players wore the wool socks. He also said about only one-third of the players on his team wear the Kevlar socks under their shin pads. Reebok is looking into putting Kevlar into the actual outer socks themselves, which would make a lot of sense and could cut down on these types of injuries.)
But Regier said its endemic of another problem in the game. With guaranteed contracts, players are not concerned with a catastrophic injury, so almost all the time they’ll take comfort over safety.
“Players want this kind of equipment and manufacturers want to please players, so they create lighter products that unfortunately provide less protection,” Regier said. “So if you look at skates today, the old tendon guard that used to be in the back is cut way back. I don’t think we prioritize it from the team side or the union side and until we make it a bigger priority, it’s going to keep happening. Until we look at the complete set of equipment and move safety to the top priority instead of comfort, lightness and speed, it will keep happening.”
The players want the lightest equipment possible and manufacturers are responding to that desire, he said. When players wear short-cuff gloves, there is little protection between the glove and the elbow pad. Regier said in his experience, convincing players to wear Kevlar socks is a tough sell because they don’t think an injury such as Karlsson’s is ever going to happen to them and it’s not quite as comfortable. Players think that comfort equates to speed and people such as Regier aren’t sure that’s necessarily the case.
Regier said the leadership on this issue has to come from the league, the NHL Players’ Association and the individual teams. Regier sits in on meetings with manufacturers and tells them what the team is looking for in terms of safety. He said people from Bauer came in before this season and he told the company what the team expected in terms of protection.
“It’s so important that our equipment manager is obligated to come to me and say, ‘I don't think this is good enough,’” Regier said. “And then I’m going to go to the player and say, ‘This is important. Your safety is important for your career, for your hockey club, for your teammates and it’s important for the fans to be able to watch you play.’ And they were very good about it.”
Everyone agrees the game can’t afford to lose players such as Karlsson to injuries that can be prevented with more protective equipment. A player who chooses comfort and feel over safety might find that he’s not so comfortable when he’s writhing in pain on the ice or rehabilitating a serious injury.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.