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Flyers players embracing neck guards after Adam Johnson's tragic death

Atkinson, Sanheim and Konecny all sported neck protection at Flyers practice Friday

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VOORHEES, N.J. — Cam Atkinson has a scar on his face, a reminder of how dangerous a skate blade can be when it leaves the ice surface.

In October 2014, Atkinson was left feeling fortunate despite needing 75 stitches and barely being able to see out of his right eye.

"I was like, ‘I don’t give a s--- what I look like,’" Atkinson said Friday, recalling the incident over nine years later. "But that was the scariest part."

He was just happy to actually see what he looked like.

Only 25 years old and playing for the Blue Jackets, Atkinson watched Ryan Kesler's skate blade inadvertently come up toward his face. The Ducks' center was taking a shot on the power play with Atkinson behind him in coverage.

The blade gashed his eyelid.

"Actually the face guard, the shield, protected my eye," Atkinson said. "I closed my eye so fast, it went halfway through my eyelid, didn’t even touch my eyeball. ... My eyelid was hanging over my eye, so I couldn’t see. At the time, I thought it hit my eye. As soon as I got back to the doctors, they lifted my eyelid and I could see."

Atkinson, now with the Flyers and in his 12th NHL season, has no problem sporting a neck guard for safety. He practiced with one Friday, as did teammates Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny.

The Flyers' players were spurred to do so in the wake of Adam Johnson's death. The former NHL player died tragically Oct. 28 when his neck was cut by a skate blade during an EIHL game in England.

“Unfortunately it’s one of those things that something happens and it scares you like that," Konecny said. "I have a wife and kids at home. To me, it’s like, why would I not put it on?

“I’ve definitely had skates in different areas where you look, or your legs. I had one, I think last year or the year before, where I tripped and a guy went to take off, and his skate hit my visor right in front of my face. It just scared me. It’s one of those things where you think, ‘It won’t happen to me.’"

The neck protection is attached to an undershirt. On Friday, Atkinson and Konecny had a Warroad product, which they plan to wear in games starting Saturday. Sanheim's brand was Daredevil Hockey. He has worn its protective gear for areas down the legs, under the arms and around the wrists.

“I sent them a message seeing if they were producing anything with protection around the neck," Sanheim said. "They sent me this sample, just trying it out right now. I think I have to send it back, so I don’t think I can wear it in the game tomorrow.

“They got it here pretty quickly. I’m going to have to speak with them, see if I can even keep this shirt. If I can, obviously I’d be wearing it tomorrow.”

Neck guards have been in high demand across all levels of hockey. Atkinson ordered three, but a couple are back-ordered until February. Per Sportsnet, the NHL and NHLPA would have to come to an agreement for the league to make neck guards mandatory. The NHL is not the only league or level to not enforce them, according to ESPN.

"For me, I’m doing what’s best for me and my family," Atkinson said. "If it helps other guys feel more comfortable wearing a neck guard, then that’s what it’s all about."

Players want to be protected but also unrestricted and not too warm.

“This is light, as soon as I’m in between periods, you just unzip it," Atkinson said. "It feels great, I didn’t even notice it on the ice.”

Sanheim experienced a scare in junior hockey when he was nicked just under his neck.

“It’s a little bit of an adjustment because you’re used to having nothing around your neck," he said, "but once you get out there and start skating around and practicing, it didn’t take too long to get used to it.

“In speaking with a lot of guys on our team, I think everyone’s pretty interested. It’s just a matter of whether we can get the product or not."

By the end of the season, neck guards could be more common in the NHL.

“Hopefully, eventually, we can have every guy wearing it because I think that’s where it’s going to go to," Sanheim said. "I think that’s where it needs to go to. You saw the incident that happened, obviously a freak accident, it could happen to any one of us on any given night.

"If we can take precautions and not have that happen, I think that would be a good thing."

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