Myers: Change hockey's culture, not the rules of the game
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Max Jablonski lived what otherwise would've been any Minnesota kid's dream on Tuesday night, skating out to center ice before a packed house of more than 18,000 at the Xcel Energy Center, and planting the flag before a Minnesota Wild win. The fans gave Max, clad in a #13 sweater from Benilde-St. Margaret's, a rousing standing ovation.
But this dream came in the midst of a nightmare for the Jablonski family that has been played out in the local and national media since the final Friday of 2011. That's when Max's older brother, Jack, was paralyzed in a junior varsity hockey game after being checked from behind into the boards.
Jack, a high school sophomore, has been the subject of an overwhelming wave of support in hockey and social media circles. Shortly after New Year's Day, Minnesota school kids by the thousands went to class wearing white in Jablonski's honor, and countless hockey players around the state have been playing with "JABS #13" on their helmets and sticks. The Gophers held a fundraising event for Jablonski last week, and the Wild announced that this year's Hockey Day in Minnesota will be dedicated to the Jablonski family and will feature an all-day telethon to raise money for the Jack Jablonski Trust Fund.
At the end of Tuesday's Wild game, forward Cal Clutterbuck admitted that when visiting Jack's hospital bed on Monday, the pro forward promised to score a goal in Jack's honor. On Tuesday, to give the Wild a 1-0 lead, Clutterbuck kept his promise.
Jablonski is, sadly, far from the only athlete to incur a life-altering injury on the field of play. In fact, he's not even the only Minnesota high school hockey player to suffer paralysis in the past few weeks. Jenna Privette, a senior at St. Croix Lutheran, is beginning physical therapy this week but is still unable to move her legs after suffering paralysis from a hit in a game. On Wednesday, there was a movement afoot on Twitter and elsewhere to have Minnesota kids wear blue to school in Jenna's honor.
And, not surprisingly, there's been uproar about changing the rules of hockey to eliminate any and all contact, in an effort to prevent these horrifying, but still very rare, injuries. As someone who's attends hundreds of hockey games per year and has witnesses thousands of games in a lifetime, let me advocate for a far more simple and sane idea:
Don't change the rules, change the culture.
The USA Hockey-mandated coaching certification module for 12-year-old hockey players plainly states that there is only one reason for body contact on the ice: To separate an opposing player from the puck. If you hit a player who does not have the puck, you are in violation of the rules of the game and are subject to a penalty for interference. Yet we've reached a point in the "evolution" of hockey where booming hits along the boards, whether or not there's a puck anywhere in sight, are not only often tolerated, but are the things that make the highlights on SportsCenter nearly every night (along with fights - another can of worms for another day).
A smart approach to make hockey safer has already been undertaken by the Minneapolis Hockey Association, which is encouraging players to sign "Jack's pledge." The vow is straightforward: "I play the body to play the puck. I do not hit to hurt. I do not board. I do not cross-check. I do not check from behind. Ever."
There has been a crackdown on such checks in college hockey for the past several years. Players called for dangerous hits are assessed a five-minute major penalty and ejected from the game. But too often we hear grousing from coaches and players alike: "I hit him in the side, not the back." "He turned his back to me to draw the penalty." And my personal appalling favorite: "He got up and skated away as soon as the penalty was called." All but admitting that the hit was designed to prevent the opponent from getting up and skating away.
A more stringent application of the existing rules, on all levels of the game, will help. But it's not the perfect answer. Traumatic injuries will still happen with or without checking. Case in point: Travis Roy, the Boston University forward who was paralyzed just 11 seconds into his first shift as a collegian, in a 1995 game versus North Dakota. On the play, Roy moved to check a North Dakota player, missed, and fell headfirst into the boards.
As players become bigger and the game gets faster, head and neck injuries will almost certainly remain part of the equation. But coaches sending the message that hits near the boards, hits that could in any way be dangerous, and hits designed to do anything other than take away the puck, will not be tolerated, is the first step. Eliminate the intentionally dangerous plays, and you greatly reduce the risk of traumatic injury while maintaining the fast and physical game loved by so many.
The rules are there, and it's easy to enforce them more stringently. So change the culture.