Shift by shift and game by game, culture change has begun in Minnesota’s most high-profile high school sport.
Conspicuously absent from this week’s boys’ hockey state tournament is the buzz about player safety that dominated last year’s storied affair. In its place, coaches talk of cleaner play along the boards and fewer penalties. They see players called for checking from behind learning their lesson.
After a full season of tougher penalties for the type of dangerous hit that paralyzed Jack Jablonski, coaches of teams vying for this year’s championships see referees more comfortable with the rule changes. While there’s still plenty of howling about bad or missed calls — and whether penalty changes were the right approach to rein in undisciplined play — they see a sport making progress.
The game’s change is “more good than bad,” said Bill Lechner, coach of Hill-Murray, the top-seeded school in Class 2A. “We had a defenseman called for a 5-minute major in the first game so he had to change the way he played. You see fewer hits along the boards and when guys have their backs turned. And there are fewer of those hits over the middle when the other guy has his head down.”
No team has felt the effects like Wayzata, which defeated Benilde-St. Margaret’s to advance to its first state tournament appearance since 2004. Some of its players were on the Trojans’ junior varsity that played the Red Knights’ JV team on Dec. 30, 2011, the game in which Jablonski was hurt.
Wayzata coach Pat O’Leary said hits in JV games stand out “because the games are not as fast as varsity and there a fewer of those big collisions. So when you see one, it sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Change has come at the varsity level, he said. He recalled four or five 5-minute majors called in Wayzata’s games earlier this season but only one or two since the holidays.
“I think early on the refs had to call it close and set the bar high,” O’Leary said. “I think it worked well. And I think coaches and people in the community are talking more about looking for a guy’s numbers along the wall and not going for the head.’’
Game changed quickly
Other coaches echo O’Leary’s sentiment about officials, who bore the brunt of instantly adopting penalty changes raced into place by the Minnesota State High School League barely two weeks after Jablonski was hurt. The changes, applied to checking from behind, boarding and head contact, meant teams would play short-handed for five minutes no matter how many goals were scored against it.
As referees, even more in the spotlight than usual, blew their whistles to call penalties, the game-altering effects were immediate.
In a section playoff game last year with a state tournament bid on the line, a star Blaine player was called for a major penalty and found his team behind 6-0 by the time he got back on the ice.
“Last year it went really far in one direction where it really wiped out checking in the game and now it has come back to a balance,’’ said Greg Vannelli, coach of Class 1A title favorite St. Thomas Academy. “I think we’re good right now. I don’t remember more than one incident that seemed dangerous [this year]. Now kids go behind the goal line cautious or with a slow-down attitude.’’
Fewer penalties overall
Vannelli credits the change to “refs making calls and us going over it [the rule change] with players. And now it’s common and second-nature to do it this way.
“It’s definitely changed from three years ago.’’
Signs also point to fewer penalties overall, which was one of the high school league’s goals in making the changes. Lechner said his Pioneers were called for 101 penalties this season, including two 5-minute majors. Opposing teams were called for 103 penalties and four 5-minute majors.
Last season, he said, about 140 penalties were called on both the Pioneers and their opponents.
Duluth East coach Mike Randolph said game officials have “been very approachable and are trying to work with the coaches.”
Randolph said some of his protests about the severity of hits have been met with agreement by officials, “But then they will say, ‘I still have to give him a five.’ ”
Randolph sees a “higher respect” among players and said of the culture change, “What everyone wants is more safety for the kids and I think it’s moving in the right direction.”
Changes are top of mind
Conversely, Randolph said he sees a “huge difference” at the JV level, where less experienced officials are “overreacting.” The game is called tighter, he said, whereas “varsity refs know it’s important for the games to have some flow.”
Breck coach Les Larson said he thinks “every player and every coach is cognizant that you’ve got to tell your guys not to hit hard along the boards. Not to hit like you’re trying to physically intimidate somebody.’’
Larson said he’s also seen rare instances of referee crews “going back to the old deal” of allowing more hits.
Overall, the kids and the coaches have done a great job of remembering. “They don’t want anybody to get hurt,’’ he said.
Hermantown coach Bruce Plante said play still can get chippy when a team is losing. “It’s part of the game. It’s not right but it’s part of the way kids react,’’ he said.
But he lauded players for embracing the changes and playing with respect.
“They are pulling up on checking from behind. Kids are really cognizant of it. They try to go in under control,’’ he said. “I don’t think it’s hurt the physical part of the game and we’re a physical team.’’
Staff writers David La Vaque and Jason Gonzalez contributed to this report.