Making hockey safer is about to start with some of Minnesota's youngest players.
In an unprecedented mid-year change, Minnesota Hockey is toughening the penalties for checking from behind and boarding. The change will affect 40,000 hockey players in the 160 youth hockey associations Minnesota Hockey oversees and follows a similar move last week by the Minnesota State High School League. The league also toughened penalties for head contact.
The move to ramp up the penalties is a reaction to the check that paralyzed Jack Jablonski, a Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore. In a junior varsity game on Dec. 30, Jablonski was checked from behind and sent into the boards. Doctors have told him that he should not expect to walk again. His injury has become a rallying point to make the hockey safer.
On the day that her son was moved out of Hennepin County Medical Center and into a new phase of recovery at Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, Jablonski's mother said the family is encouraged by the youth hockey changes.
"It's one of our missions to make hockey safer," Leslie Jablonski said. "We're very happy to see Minnesota Hockey is now on board with making the game safer," she said. "We're not changing the rules; we're just enforcing them. That's our mission."
Under the Minnesota Hockey changes that begin Wednesday for girls and boys, punishment for checking from behind and boarding will be five-minute major penalties, with another 10 minutes for checking from behind after the offender's team returns to full strength. Previously, referees calling a checking from behind violation had the option of giving the player a two-minute minor penalty and an additional 10 minutes in the penalty box; boarding was merely a two-minute minor.
A referee could level a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct for only the most serious checks from behind. The Minnesota Hockey Board of Directors approved the change in a unanimous vote over the weekend at its winter board meeting in St. Louis Park. It will remain in effect until the end of the season, when it will be reviewed. Last week's changes by the Minnesota State High School League also were implemented on an interim basis.
In a letter written Monday to all Minnesota Hockey members, Minnesota Hockey President Dave Margenau said these revisions "are only part of what is needed to make hockey as safe as possible. A culture change is required that will no longer encourage dangerous and intimidation play. Parents, coaches, officials, players and administrators need to work together to make that change."
Eric Olson, Minnesota Hockey Officials Association and Minnesota Hockey director of officiating, said he has not tracked all the two-minute minor penalties given for checks from behind. But of the 20,000 youth games played last year, referees leveled 160 game misconduct penalties for checks from behind and 58 for boarding, when the purpose of the check is not to play the puck but is violent in nature and done only to hit the player, Olson said. The number of minor violations for those checks might be three times that, he said.
"I don't think we have an epidemic at the youth level," Olson said. "But we don't want to see any check from behind in the game of hockey. ... I think it's important that we stress how dangerous the game of hockey is and that player safety has to come first. If this will help kids learn it and build a culture of not allowing checks from behind anywhere on the ice, then I think we're going to be successful."
"I don't think anybody is against a good, clean body check," Olson said. "But when the check's only purpose is to hurt somebody, that's what needs to leave the game."
Toughening the penalty is coming during the first season Minnesota Hockey banned all forms of checking at the peewee level, boys in grades 6 and 7, out of concern for player safety. Critics to the ban argue in part that peewee players may be more susceptible to injuries as they advance into the older groups.
Bantam coach Scott Hambly said the new tougher penalties will likely force coaches and players to work on the skill levels of the game rather than bullying to advance.
"At one time, coaches used to use the word 'hit' a lot and kids got very aggressive," Hambly said. "But now players are faster and stronger and the game is quicker. It's a lot safer sport than people say it is. But anytime you step on the ice, you're assuming some sort of risk because anytime you're skating hard and just catch a bad edge, you could go head first into the boards."