FL hockey coaches endorse rule changes

Penalties stiffened following severe injuries to high-schoolers

By Clint Riese
Sports Editor

The injury suffered by Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey player Jack Jablonski in late December has led to an outpouring of support and a host of sweeping rules changes.

The story has truly captivated the “State of Hockey.” The sophomore was paralyzed by crashing head-first into the glass while being inadvertently checked from behind, an illegal move. Since receiving a diagnosis of a severed spine and the prognosis that he may never walk again, local high schools and professional athletes and other celebrities have rallied to Jablonski’s side with visits and fundraisers. The 16-year-old has taken it all with a remarkable attitude and has already set goals for a normal future.

Meanwhile, the ramifications from his ordeal – and of a subsequent spinal injury suffered in a hockey game by St. Croix Lutheran High School senior Jenna Privette – have quickly played out on the ice. The Minnesota State High School League last month stiffened the penalties for several infractions in an attempt to reduce the number of dangerous situations along the boards.

The penalty for checking from behind increased from a two-minute minor with a 10-minute misconduct to a five-minute major with a 10-minute misconduct; Boarding is now an automatic five-minute major rather than having an option for a two-minute minor; and the two-minute minor option was similarly eliminated from the penalty for contact to the head.

Minnesota Hockey, the organization that governs amateur youth hockey in Minnesota, soon followed suit, taking the same precautions to youth-level play on a trial basis. Even USA Hockey is considering similar moves including raising the minimum age for checking at youth levels.

Forest Lake High School varsity coaches Aaron Forsythe and Ryan Sauter agree that the changes have made an immediate impact on the style of play and the outcome of games.

The Ranger girls had to kill off a boarding call in just their second game after the rules were implemented.

“I think it is very evident that all players are making much more cerebral decisions along the boards as opposed to ones based on instinct,” said Forsythe, the boys’ coach.

Sauter and Forsythe both agree the time had come for change, but they held different views until recently. Sauter said the recent injuries have caused him to re-evaluate safety considerations. He had felt the former rules were sufficient, but now thinks safety is “something we have to take a step back and look at.”

The first-year FLHS girls’ coach puts the onus on coaches and parents to teach young players the proper and safe way to play.

“Teaching players how to protect themselves in corners and along the boards is a very important step all coaches need to do,” he said. “You need to make sure you are playing safely and if a player does put herself in a dangerous position, make sure you are not putting her in an even more dangerous situation, which is difficult to do in a contact sport.”

Sauter learned first-hand how vulnerable hockey players can be. In his playing days, he hurt his back (but avoided serious injury) when he and a friend were drilling in the corner and he fell head-first into the boards. He notes that even with proper technique, injuries can happen from a simple loss of balance.

“They just need to constantly be thinking about balance and getting into the proper positions,” Sauter said.

Forsythe wishes such rule changes had been put in years ago.

“The college game has had a five-minute major for checking from behind since 2002; in hindsight it is odd that it has take high school hockey this long,” he said. “Unfortunately it took a tragedy to spark the change.”

Forsythe said much of the dangerous play seen in recent years stems from post-lockout rule changes implemented by the National Hockey League in 2005. In an effort to speed up the game and foster scoring, the NHL banned players from grabbing and clutching opponents. However, those changes also ramped up the speed that checks were delivered at.

“By 2008 or 2009 youth and high school hockey had mimicked the NHL game and we’re left with kids taking hits at speeds that a player couldn’t reach 10 years ago because now they’re unimpeded by their opponents,” Forsythe said.

The NHL quickly learned the negative by-product of the game’s quicker pace, and has taken aggressive strides to lessen the number of dangerous hits. At the onset of camp before this season, the Ranger boys watched a video produced by the NHL which demonstrated what is a clean hit and what is unacceptable. Also, the coaching staff on two occasions addressed the players how they wanted them to separate opponents from the puck: the first time was immediately following the Jablonski injury and the second was following the rule changes.

Jablonski has vowed to walk again. No matter what, the sport he loves has already taken leaps and bounds through him.

“It would have taken youth and high school hockey several years to catch up to the NHL if it hadn’t been for the Jablonski incident,” Forsythe said. “Now we’ve surpassed the NHL in protecting our players.  I’m happy with the changes.”