November 15, 2011
In the National Hockey League last season, 24 of its 30 teams blocked over 550 shots during the 82-game regular season. It's become an essential facet of team defense at the pro level: Sacrificing the body, and one's own safety, to deflect a speeding puck, hoping that a player's equipment sufficiently protects them.
Kyle Fundytus, 16, played defense for the Don Wheaton Midget AA team in Edmonton. Last weekend, he slid to the ice to block a slap-shot from an opponent, something his coach, Nathan Papirny, said he'd do with regularity.
What happened next, according to Papirny, was a "once in a 10 million" accident that cost Fundytus his life.
The puck struck Fundytus in the neck, sending him into cardiac arrest. According to the Globe & Mail, he underwent CPR on the way to the hospital and doctors gave him a tracheotomy, but Fundytus died overnight from his injuries.
His family released a statement on Monday, reading in part: "Kyle's zest for life and his passion for hockey will be a memory his family will always carry for the rest of their lives." Students at Holy Trinity Catholic High School mourned him with a memorial wall.
Game-related deaths in hockey are rare; perhaps the most notable recent one was when Don Sanderson, 21, died from injuries he sustained when his head hit the ice during a December 2009 fight in an amateur hockey game. The incident sparked debate over both the use of helmets in a fight and fighting's place in hockey.
While many agree that Fundytus' death was a tragic accident, it has opened up a debate about further safety measures to protect players around the face and neck.
We can talk about better equipment or more penalties to combat injuries. Players of midget age must wear neck protection, but it isn't designed to block a shot. Blocking shots as you sprawl on the ice is commonplace now.
Can we do more to protect our children? Is the drive to win part of the problem? Or is this an isolated incident and we just have to hope it doesn't happen again and change nothing within the game?
Josh Wingrove of the Globe & Mail explored the safety issue, reporting that Hockey Canada is looking into the incident and what might have prevented it:
When hit, Kyle was wearing a throat protector, which is made of thick fabric and designed to prevent cuts from a skate's blade but not reduce a puck's impact. Hockey Canada requires all minor hockey players to wear them. Now, the agency is considering whether more neck protection is needed. Manufacturers don't make anything that would fully shield a throat from a slap-shot, said Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada's vice-president of membership services. The agency will review the case.
"If there's a problem there, there's probably a solution," he said. "But I'm not sure that I would know exactly what that was."
Among many who are against an equipment change is Kyle's coach. Only a "big bubble" could be entirely safe, he said. "It is what it is. These kids are covered in gear… It was just a fluke accident and I think that's where it should be left at."
That it was. In fact, Trent McCleary of the Montreal Canadiens was the last NHL player to suffer a neck injury of that nature back in 2000, when an emergency tracheotomy saved his life and ended his hockey career. (It was No. 1 on Puck Daddy's 10 most brutal injuries of the last decade.)
Hockey Canada is right to explore further safety measures, and hopefully equipment manufacturers explore ways to protect the neck from flying pucks — if there is a suitable way.
But in the end, Fundytus' coach is correct: This was a tragic accident in an inherently dangerous game; one that Kyle Fundytus played with intensity as "a great hockey player, but also a great person," according to his team.