Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson’s season ended with one vicious slash of a skate blade across his left Achilles’ tendon.
Karlsson hopped off the ice on one skate and went straight to the locker room, with a green light for the operating table.
Karlsson was flattened by Penguins forward Matt Cooke and sliced by his skate blade as the two tangled along the boards. In a sport where brutal head shots and 100 mph pucks to the face often take headlines for leaving lasting injuries, the incident was a bleak reminder of how nasty one wrong cut can cause serious damage. Karlsson, the Norris Trophy winner last season as the NHL’s top defenseman, is out for the season but expected to make a full recovery.
As nasty as it was – and as much as Cooke’s motivations have been debated – there’s a chance Karlsson’s injury could have been prevented or at least drastically lessened.
Karlsson could have worn Kevlar-reinforced socks that are touted as cut-proof. Bauer, one of the leading hockey equipment manufacturers, for example, makes a skate sock made of Kevlar fiber that would protect the leg from below the knee down to the middle of the foot. The sock is far from mandatory, but Karlsson’s injury has made some players think hard about adding a new layer of protection to avoid a similar fate. The Washington Capitals had a box of socks waiting for them before a recent practice.
The socks should be a growing trend in the NHL. But some players are still resistant to use them. The use of Kevlar in other equipment pieces is also debated in the NHL, especially in some of the exposed areas like the neck. It could be a new wave of protection in a game that appears to be getting more dangerous by the season.
Karlsson’s injury put the sport on notice to the dangers of playing with legs unprotected. Kevlar, high-impact material used by military, law enforcement and NFL players for body armor, could be the answer.
“That was a scary incident,” New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “I mean, they’re fluke things, but I coached (former NHL forward) Richard Zednik, who had his artery cut with a skate blade. Guys are moving so fast and plays are happening so spontaneously that I think the more Kevlar we can get on these guys the better, because you can see it’s something that doesn’t need to happen obviously if you’re wearing something like that.”
Karlsson’s not alone. Just last week, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Redmond suffered a gash to his right femoral artery and vein after he was accidentally cut by a teammate’s skate during a drill. He was taken to the hospital and underwent a three-hour surgery.
Not all players are on board with the safety upgrade.
Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy told reporters he was “taking a risk” by not wearing the socks in the aftermath of Karlsson’s injury. He said general discomfort was the main issue. Capitals defenseman John Erskine complained the sock was thick around the ankle.
Issues with style or comfort are the same excuses given by former players who protested for decades about wearing helmets. There are some who still view playing without a half-face visor as some sort of badge of courage. Ask injured Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who took a stick to the outside of his right eye in 2011, how that worked out. There’s also a stubborn refusal by wannabe tough-guys to wear protective plexiglass shielding on their skates to lessen the rash of broken bones suffered from trying to block shots.
And those stances are tough to break. Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said convincing players to switch up their equipment, even if it could prevent injuries, is a tall order.
“Whether they can make these protective devices smaller or lighter, I don’t know,” he said. “But we haven’t found the right formula yet in order to get all of our players to wear them.”
The NHL has made great strides in beefing up head safety and making helmets and other protective gear mandatory. Down the line, swapping lightweight socks to these cut-resistant ones could be on the agenda.
“I think if you are able to find material that at least prevents some of the cut, it would be best because it’s something that you won’t feel on your skin,” Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said. “It’s got a different feeling when you put these different type of socks on. We have a lot of guys that do wear them and I think it’s important.”
All it takes to get a player to change his mind sometimes is a good scare. After Detroit Red Wings center Valtteri Filppula missed a 2011 game because of a deep cut on his right shin, he returned wearing a Kevlar sock.
In the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned from an injury last season playing with a custom-fit rib/chest compression shirt and a layer of Kevlar-lined composite in his shoulder pads to help absorb hits to his clavicle and shoulder joint regions. And pitchers in Major League Baseball could experiment this season with protective hat liners made of Kevlar, to cut down on injury resulting from line drives back to the mound.
In the NHL, it’s a matter of the game’s tough-natured culture and this advanced technology someday finding a happy medium.
“They’re big boys,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, “and they make their own decision.”