Coaches assail dangerous youth hockey hits

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2012 - 6:56 PM

As physicians seek a clearer prognosis, Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore Jack Jablonski, injured Friday, awaits spinal surgery.

Paralyzing injuries suffered by a 16-year-old Twin Cities hockey player Friday are renewing calls to reduce the level of physical contact in youth hockey and teach young skaters how to play the game without hurting themselves or others.

Jack Jablonski has regained slight movement in his right arm and shoulders, but still cannot move his legs, a physician said Monday. The Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore was checked headfirst into the boards during a junior varsity tournament game in St. Louis Park.

"This is a very serious spinal cord injury," said Dr. Tina Slusher, who is caring for Jablonski in Hennepin County Medical Center's intensive-care unit. "We are worried because he isn't moving more at this time. You can't say absolutely where we're going to be six weeks, six months down the road, but it is very worrisome."

Slusher said Jablonski's spinal cord was severed at the neck and two vetebrae were fractured. The teen's long-term prognosis will be clearer after spinal fusion surgery this week and his recovery over the next six weeks.

The severe injury heightens concern about the level of contact in youth hockey and, specifically, about any hockey parent's nightmare: the check from behind that sends athletes flying into the boards.

Injury risk is so high from such contact that youth hockey jerseys now have "STOP" signs on the back to remind players not to hit from behind. USA Hockey, which has banned all checking for the youngest players, extended that rule this season to players ages 11 and 12.

"This is one of the reasons why USA Hockey legislated checking out of peewee hockey," said Lou Nanne, a former NHL player and general manager considered by many to be the dean of Minnesota hockey. "For all those people who wonder why, now you know why.''

Nanne visited Jablonski on Monday along with Nanne's son, who once coached the youth, and his grandson, who played on a team with Jablonski last summer. A red sea of Benilde teammates and visitors streamed to and from Jablonski's room at HCMC on Monday. College and NHL hockey players nationwide sent their prayers and hopes.

"We need a miracle right now. We need prayers," said Jablonski's mother, Leslie.

Jack's father, Mike Jablonski, described his own reaction to the incident.

"Anybody ... who's ever had a son who played hockey or football, when your son goes down in that type of situation, you say, 'OK, get up.'"

But the teen didn't. His father raced down to the ice and crouched close to his son.

"Dad," the boy told him, "I can't feel anything."

Permissive sport?

Jablonski's parents said they don't believe the checks were malicious, and they offered support to the Wayzata players, including one who had been a teammate of their son.

"What we're dealing with is beyond belief," said Leslie Jablonski, "but I can imagine what they're dealing with, as well, and it's something they'll never forget. Our heart goes out to them and their families."

The Jablonskis and the Benilde coaches nonetheless criticized a permissive hockey culture that allows dangerous levels of contact to persist.

"We have the rules against checking from behind. We just have to apply them better," said Ken Pauly, head varsity coach for Benilde-St. Margaret's. "We have to start from a young age. Just like taking a stick and slashing a player across the face is unthinkable, we have to make checking from behind unthinkable."

Witnesses said the injury wasn't due to a dramatic shove in the back. Wayzata's junior varsity head coach, Duke Johnson, called it an "odd" play.

"It wasn't a booming hit," he said. "Was it a check from behind? Yes," Johnson added. "Did our kid take eight strides and then hit him? No."

The Wayzata player got a five-minute major penalty for boarding, which meant his team skated a player short for that time. He also got a 10-minute game disqualification, which would bench a player for that length of time and remove the penalized player from the rest of the game, apparently because the play resulted in an injury.

Jablonski is a talented athlete who made varsity tennis as a freshman and pitches on a traveling baseball team. He normally played on Benilde's varsity team, but was moved down for the JV tournament to get extra ice time.

Keith Hendrickson, an amateur scout for the Buffalo Sabres NHL team, was at the tournament Thursday. He was angered to learn of Jablonski's injury on Friday because, he said, he had seen similar hits Thursday -- including some that didn't draw penalties.

"There's a big difference between hitting and checking, and there is more malicious hitting going on in the last year," said Hendrickson, who resigned last spring after 25 years behind the Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl bench. "Nobody condones it, but all I hear from coaches is, 'Body! Boy! Body!'''

Jablonski is facing his recovery with the ambition and optimism of a 16-year-old, his parents said. He even asked his coach if he might be able to play in March if his team qualifies for the state tournament. His parents have tried to temper his hopes with the medical challenges.

"He's seen the reality and the long journey he has," his mother said. "This isn't a race. It's a marathon, and he knows that."

The Benilde and Wayzata varsity teams play Thursday, and officials are trying to figure out how to honor Jablonski and prepare for that emotional evening.

Jack Jablonski's younger brother, Max, had hockey practice scheduled for Monday evening. He planned to wear 13, his brother's number.

Staff writers Brian Stensaas, James Paulsen and David La Vaque contributed to this report.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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