Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Wyatt Kaiser sported a neck guard at Saturday's morning skate. He becomes the first Blackhawk to wear one since the tragic Adam Johnson incident.
"I wore one in high school all the way growing up, so it's not really something I'm not used to, to be honest," Kaiser said. "It felt good. You don't even notice it's there when you're playing, really. World Juniors I wore one too, so pretty used to it honestly."
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Kaiser said the Johnson incident hit close to home because the two of them skated together over the summer. Like Kaiser, Johnson was a Minnesota area native and went to Minnesota Duluth.
"I didn't really know him great, to be honest, just kind of met him a few times," Kaiser said. "But yeah, Duluth guy, Minnesota guy, it definitely hits close to home."
Kaiser is also wearing cut-proof material, including near the wrists. We're seeing more and more players start to wear neck and wrist guards.
"I’ve seen it through the media, around the league, and it’s not surprising," Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said. "But it’s something that hockey players, like most sports people, are very habitual. They’ll take time to get around but I’m sure there’ll be people definitely experimenting and wearing them and that’s always a good thing."
Richardson appeared in more than 1,400 games in the NHL as a player. He explained why it might take some time for players to get used to the neck guards, especially for the veterans.
"Some people like wearing old equipment, they don’t like new equipment," Richardson said. "Some people will cut away the neck part of their undershirts because they don’t like the feel of their neck when they’re breathing hard and it almost feels like a bit of a choking, gag-reflex to guys who are over-extended on physical activity and gasping for air, even though it’s not really doing anything.
"Nowadays, everything’s kind of that spandex material that stretches, it still feels like it’s restricting. That’s probably the mental barrier of getting over that and just getting used to it physically and how it feels."
Connor Bedard said it's making himself think harder about the importance of wearing one.
"Obviously what happened is a tragedy," Bedard said. "It definitely makes you think. My first thoughts about it were about the person and the family and everything, but seeing some guys put it on, and Wyatt there, you definitely think about it for sure.
"I couldn't tell you what other people are thinking about it, but from personal perspective and talking to guys, seeing a few things, obviously we want to be as safe as we can out there. No one's going to go against that if someone's trying to be safer. Everyone's definitely thinking about that, for sure."
Kaiser plans to wear the neck guard during Saturday's game against the Florida Panthers at the United Center. I imagine he'll continue to wear it beyond that, too.
"It just wasn't worth the risk," Kaiser said. "I don't even notice it out there. It's a no-brainer."