NHL, NHLPA discussing safety after Adam Johnson's death in England

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The NHL and NHL Players' Association are in discussions about additional safety measures following the death of Adam Johnson over the weekend.

Johnson, 29, was playing for the Nottingham Panthers in England's Elite Ice Hockey League on Saturday when his throat was cut during a collision with a Sheffield Steelers player in what the Panthers called a "freak accident." He received medical treatment on the ice and was taken to Sheffield's Northern General Hospital, where he died.

Johnson played for the Pittsburgh Penguins and three AHL teams during his career.

The incident sparked renewed interest in neck guards for players at all levels of hockey -- including whether they should become a mandatory part of an NHL player's equipment. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told reporters Tuesday that the team will mandate neck protection for its AHL and ECHL clubs and urge players at the NHL level to do the same.

On the day after Johnson died, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh to open a conversation about additional cut-resistant protection for players.

"Whether it's something that's mandated directly or on a phased-in basis, that's something we'll discuss with the players' association," said Bettman, speaking after a Stadium Series news conference at MetLife Stadium on Wednesday.

Bettman said the NHL doesn't "impose equipment changes without the agreement" of the NHLPA. He said the league wants to prioritize protection but added that NHL players have the right to make some decisions for themselves.

Walsh said those discussions have just started among the players. After speaking with Bettman, Walsh reached out to Joe Reekie, a former NHL defenseman who heads the union's player safety initiatives. Reekie and his counterpart at the NHL will speak at the All-Star Game in Toronto in February about next steps for neck guards and other safety measures.

"We're going to explore everything," Walsh said. "It's in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. I think we have to continue to have conversations on this as we move forward here. It's a change for the players, but it's also about protecting them, so I think we will have those conversations as we move forward here."

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Daniel Briere played 17 years in the NHL. He said neck guards could be the next evolution for NHL player equipment.

"I know there have been some injuries over the years, and the tragic one that just happened last weekend. Hopefully it opens our eyes to providing more protection for the players," Briere said.

Bettman said the neck guard issue hasn't been moved to the front-burner because of Johnson's death. He said the NHL and NHLPA have been studying ways to better protect players from skate cuts for some time in a joint committee.

"We've been studying, with the players' association, cut-resistant materials," Bettman said. "It's not something new. Ultimately it's something that, if we're going to require more, we and the players' association need to come to an understanding on.

"Unfortunately this was a freak occurrence, but it's something that we've been looking at in terms of cuts to the wrist, cuts to the leg and worse, and it's something we're going to continue to discuss and continue to study."

Bettman acknowledged that reaching consensus with the players on mandatory safety measures can take a while. He cited the yearslong "education process" involved in mandating visors on helmets, which was finally passed for the 2013-14 season.

"It didn't happen overnight. Obviously, we respect the players' view on this," Bettman said.

Briere said he expects there will be resistance from within the NHLPA -- at least at first.

"It's always tough to change, right? We're resistant to change. That's just the human nature. I understand," he said. "But unfortunately you're always waiting for something tragic to happen for change to come, and hopefully we don't have to wait for another one."