More answers needed in death of Teddy Balkind
Sometime this week, whether it is from the Greenwich Police Department, St. Luke’s School or someone else, there needs to be a confirmation whether Teddy Balkind was or was not wearing a protective neck guard at the time of the fatal accident at Brunswick School on Jan. 6.
For a grieving family, for school and town officials, for the media, there is no handbook for this horrible tragedy. There is, however, an ethical point where individual sensitivity meets the public good. And there is an honorable point when a time to mourn gives way to a time to make right.
Exactly when and how those points are addressed in Balkind’s death require different kinds of answers.
Clarifying whether Teddy was wearing a neck guard when he was struck by the skate of another player in a junior varsity game is important to hundreds of thousands of parents whose kids lace up skates. And it’s important now.
Within a few days of his death, Teddy’s close friend Sam Brande of Wayland, Massachusetts, started a petition for USA Hockey to make neck guards mandatory, and it now has more than 75,000 signatures.
Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, a certified sports athletic trainer, says she plans to introduce legislation requiring all state hockey players to wear a neck guard or a similar protective device in games and practices.
Neck guards are a good thing. Canada makes them mandatory for youth levels. They are not 100 percent foolproof. There are different kinds of protective devices. Some are better for absorbing hard-hit pucks. Some are more comfortable. Debate, guidance, equipment advancement. All important. Yet beyond any it, we don’t know if Teddy was, in fact, not wearing a neck guard.
There have been assumptions all along. There is a photo of Teddy, sent by family to Hearst, where he isn’t wearing one. The NEPSAC, which governs prep school athletics, does not require neck guards. Given Teddy had a COVID mask and he was a sophomore, the photo was either taken this season or last.
With officials on the ice, it appears to be taken during a play stoppage or before a period.
Yet without official confirmation, we don’t know. He could have been wearing a neck guard and a skate blade could have struck an uncovered area. We’re talking millimeters here between a couple of stitches and the carotid artery or jugular vein. If that were the case, the national focus and debate would be on the manufac
turer and the reliability of equipment. Such a different matter.
Greenwich police said Friday they will be releasing no more information until the completion of their investigation. Who knows when that will be? Tomorrow? Six months? For the greater good we need to get this matter cleared up, ASAP.
Point II: The CIAC, which governs high school athletics in Connecticut, requires neck guards be worn. As a prep school member of NEPSAC, St. Luke’s does not.
While online NEPSAC material indicated the league mirrors NCAA rules, no NEPSAC administrator — to the best of my knowledge — has yet confirmed the neck guard criteria.
In response to the direct question, NEPSAC gave Hearst Connecticut a statement that it continually examines rules of play in partnership with its sports medicine advisory committee and would share more with its community should its “standards” change. Didn’t say what the standard is. That is mind-blowing. And, given the gravity of events, cowardly.
Calls to nearby Hamden Hall and Choate Rosemary athletic directors were not returned. St. Luke’s didn’t answer the question. It took legendary coach John Gardner from Avon Old Farms to confirm NEPSAC does not make the use of neck guards mandatory. He said there are modifications from a few NCAA rules such as length of periods and severity of punishment for fighting.
“But basically, we follow the NCAA rules 100 percent,” he said. “To be honest with you, we haven’t talked about the neck guards for years.”
Asked why he was the only one I could get to confirm it, he answered, “The administrator calls the lawyer before they say anything to anybody. I tell you what I think.”
Gardner said none of his players were wearing a neck guard.
As of last weekend, Quinnipiac trainer Dan Smith said none of his players had been wearing a neck guard. Same for UConn trainer Ed Blair. USA Hockey recommending them doesn’t appear to pack much punch.
Point III: While, again, there have been assumptions, there has been no confirmation that the skate blade that struck Balkind belonged to an opponent or a teammate.
This is the most sensitive, private and timeless issue remaining. Even though it was an accident, the boy must be going through a living hell. He must heal at his own pace. Anyone in the media or on social media who would identify him without full permission from the boy and his family is a heartless, despicable monster.
He may one day choose to speak, and that is OK.
We may never know, and that is OK. Point IV: The other day, Mark Davis, St. Luke’s head of school, wrote in a letter to the school’s families that Balkind did not fall and was not lying on the ice when he was struck.
“Despite their profound grief, the Balkinds are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of the hockey players and coaches from both schools,” Davis wrote. “A particular point of concern is an inaccurate description of the accident that has nevertheless become widespread. On behalf of the
Balkinds, I will set the record straight and share first-hand accounts …
“He was skating upright and low. During the normal course of play, another player’s leg momentarily went into the air and, through no fault of anyone’s, or any lack of control, his skate cut Teddy.”
An initial statement on Jan. 6 by Greenwich police captain Mark Zuccerella said, “During the normal course of the game, a player from the other team (meaning visiting St. Luke’s) fell to the ice. Another player who was near the downed player was unable to stop and collided with the player who fell.”
“Why is this important to share?” Davis wrote. “Because it’s accurate and because it emphasizes the lack of any fault. These boys were excellent skaters, playing a great and fair game when an unimaginable accident wreaked havoc.”
Davis also wrote that he had spent time with Balkind’s parents, and Teddy’s mom called it a terrible accident and said it was nobody’s fault.
Obviously, it is vital to get the facts correct. Yet from the night of the tragedy, no one I know of has portrayed this as anything but a horrible accident. If anything, the two most well-known incidents involving necks cut by a skate in NHL history demonstrate the randomness of how such accidents occur. Clint Malarchuk, a goalie, was on the ice when an opponent heading to the net hit him. Richard Zednick was skating past when a teammate’s skate came up and cut him.
On Friday, after Davis’ letter, Zuccerella clarified for Heart Connecticut that Teddy was upright on his skates when another player’s leg came up and the skate cut him. I’m mystified. Why didn’t St. Luke’s simply inform the police of the mistake and have it publicly correct the error? Or had it tried? And why write only to school families?
Point V: In 2005, Antwoine Key, a basketball player for Eastern Connecticut, collapsed in a game at Worcester State and died of what was later determined to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Sitting with coach Bill Geitner and Antwoine’s longtime girlfriend, Michele Walker, the next day, I remember thinking their grief was incalculable. The tragedy of a young athlete, similar in many ways to Teddy Balkind, was wrenching.
Five years later, I remember picking up a paper and reading how a Massachusetts jury had awarded $1.6 million to Key’s parents in a negligence lawsuit against a local doctor, according to Boston.com. She allegedly had discovered a heart murmur but still signed a college medical form that cleared him to play. The doctor’s attorney argued she had scheduled an echocardiogram, but Key didn’t show up for it.
In speaking with the Quinnipiac and UConn hockey trainers, you begin to learn how traumatic a neck injury can be and how specialized the training is. When Malarchuk’s life was saved, the Buffalo Sabres’ trainer happened to be a former Vietnam War medic.
You can be certain every action here will be scrutinized. Was everything that could be done on the ice done? Was the emergency vehicle response time adequate? Would a more specialized trauma center have helped more? Are USA Hockey and NEPSAC in any way culpable for failing to mandate neck guards?
These questions in Point V may help answer some in the first four points.