For Lightning’s Cole Koepke, decision to wear neck protection is personal

TAMPA — Lightning forward Cole Koepke is the first Tampa Bay player to wear cut-resistant neck protection following the death of Adam Johnson last month. Johnson, a former NHL player, had his neck cut by the skate of another player during a game in England’s Elite Ice Hockey League.

For Koepke, the tragedy truly hit home. He was Johnson’s friend. He missed playing college hockey with Johnson at Minnesota-Duluth by a year, but ran in the same social circles with Johnson and worked out with him in the offseason.

“It’s horrible it happened,” Koepke said after Monday morning’s skate at Amalie Arena. “It’s something you don’t really think can happen. ... And if it’s something that is so simple to wear and get an extra layer of protection, just in my opinion, why not do it? Obviously, everyone is old enough to make their own decisions, but I just thought if it’s something that doesn’t bother me, it just seems kind of like the right thing to do for me, personally.”

“I think it makes you even more grateful to play the game,” he added. “All the times that you lace up your skates and play, from being a kid until now, it’s something you don’t ever think of that could happen.”

The death of Johnson, fatally injured Oct. 28 while playing for the Nottingham Panthers in the United Kingdom’s top professional league, has sparked debate on whether neck protection needs to be more widely mandated across all levels of the sport.

Koepke, with the Lightning after being recalled Saturday, was driving to the rink for his game at AHL Syracuse when one of his friends told him Johnson had been in injured; he didn’t know the severity of the incident until after the game.

“I was just shook,” he said. “You can hardly put it into words. ... It’s the game we love and have been playing forever and it’s just terrible.”

Though not at the same time, Koepke and Johnson both played for the same USHL juniors team in Sioux City, Iowa. Koepke’s family was close to Winnipeg defenseman Neal Pionk, one of Johnson’s best friends, and one of Koepke’s college roommates at Minnesota-Duluth, Blues defenseman Scott Perunovich, was from Johnson’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota.

“He’s just a great guy,” Koepke said of Johnson. “He’s always happy on the rink. He’s just always kind of giving you a little jab on the ice and he’s just a great person. He was a great player, but I think everyone that knew him knew the impact he could have on people. I just want them to remember how amazing a person he was.”

Koepke now wears a cut-resistant Bauer base layer that has protection around his neck that straps in the back. He said it’s not much different than the traditional base layer and after wearing it a few times, he’s gotten used to it.

“It was pretty easy,” Koepke said. “You don’t think it can happen to anyone, let alone someone you know. And to see how it affected so many people … and just seeing the impact of it and everything, it doesn’t bother me to wear the neck guard. I don’t see a reason for me not to wear it. It just seems like the right thing to do.”

Neither the NHL or AHL mandates the use of cut-resistant neck protection, but following Johnson’s death, the NHL said it was planning more conversations about protective gear. Locally, Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida mandated neck protection for all players, including all participants in the Lightning High School Hockey League, starting Jan. 1.

Many current NHLers had to wear neck protection coming up through Canadian junior leagues, and major junior leagues in Ontario and Quebec required neck guards as well, but few have started wearing them since Johnson’s death.

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