The death of a minor hockey goalie

Ricky Picard would’ve been 63.

He was a goalie, playing Midget ‘B’ for a suburban Montreal team. On December 14, 1974, during a practice re-scheduled because a game was forfeited, a teammate fired a puck that deflected off Picard’s glove and struck him in the throat. He couldn’t breathe.

“He choked on the ice…well, he actually died on the ice,” his dad, Gilles, told me.

After weeks in a coma, his death became official. Ricky Picard was 15 years old. In his era, no goalies — from minor hockey up — had any kind of neck protection. In fact, Canadian minor hockey regulations were that even goalie masks were only recommended, not mandatory.

This was 15 years before Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk miraculously survived having his carotid artery and jugular vein cut by a skate. His massive and immediate blood loss reportedly caused two fans to have heart attacks and 11 more to faint. There has never been anything like it, fortunately, and because it occurred at hockey’s highest, it led to compulsory protection for minor hockey goalies — I was once the father of one.

Today, all of them must wear certified throat protectors (from the shoulders up). While the company that certifies them is called Bureau de Normalization du Quebec and while it was motivated by “two tragic deaths in Quebec” its implementation took years. BNQ published a national standard, 16 years after Ricky Picard died.

In 1974, the committee chairman for the Canadian Standards Association’s athletic protective equipment said this:

“The incidence of this type of injury is so small. From the manufacturer’s point of view, they would look at the greatest number of types of injuries and…if it was broken fingernails, they’d try to protect it.”

So, it would take more deaths.

And this, from the administrative director of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, now Hockey Canada:

“We never make it compulsory unless there is pressure from across Canada and unless we have a standard. If we go out and approve a facemask and the thing breaks and a kid is seriously hurt, they can turn around and say: ‘You guys approved the thing.’”

So…it was really about liability.

Obviously, since then manufacturers and minor hockey have made throat protection compulsory. The NHL has not.

Today, NHL goalies must wear masks, but throat protection is optional. As flukey as Ricky Picard’s death may have been, remember this: He died after being hit by a puck, not a skate. Everybody who plays hockey, from the NHL to beer leagues, is at risk of being hit in the neck by a puck at any time. Referees and linesmen, too.

The Picard story led me to a three-part series, which was nominated for a national newspaper award. It examined the need for protective equipment for young hockey players: throat protectors, but also shields to protect eyes and mouthguard to protect teeth. The series didn’t win an award but awareness of its content perhaps played a tiny part in accelerating improved safety.

Ricky Picard should never be forgotten and in Montreal, he hasn’t been. The arena where he played in Dollard-des-Ormeaux has a medical room named after him.