The type of illegal hit that felled Jack Jablonski will continue to trigger an automatic five-minute major penalty in Minnesota youth hockey for next season, the sport's governing board decided on Sunday.
The board of Minnesota Hockey, which oversees the sport for 40,000 youth players, voted 18-6 to continue the unprecedented move it made during the previous hockey season to elevate the penalty from two to five minutes against the team in every instance and add more minutes on the offending player.
The vote, during the board's meeting in St. Louis Park, came after a committee recommendation to undo the automatic penalty, nearly two hours of passionate discussion on Saturday and more informal hallway and evening conversations among board members, Minnesota Hockey President Dave Margenau said.
An ad hoc committee appointed by Margenau had recommended going back to the penalty structure in place before the paralyzing injury to Jablonski on Dec. 30. That approach gave referees the discretion to determine the severity of the team and player penalty for checking from behind and boarding.
The committee also recommended -- and the board approved -- stepping up "education and accountability" of coaches, game officials and players, and enhancing the reporting of violent hits.
"We need to bring the rules back within the rule book," said Eric Olson, a safety committee member who backed the proposal to return to referee discretion. Olson, who also serves as the group's director of officiating, said, "We're not going to tolerate intimidation hits."
But Brad Hewitt, the lone member of the seven-member committee who voted in favor of keeping the mandatory five-minute penalties, said, "We need to err on side of protecting our kids."
During Saturday's discussion with the committee, board members backed the proposal to undo the January change by about a 2-1 ratio.
But a number of the votes reflected conflicted feelings. Margenau told board members that he "flip-flopped on this thing at least a dozen times in the last week." Some talked about the "PR effect" of reversing course amid keen public awareness of Jablonski, who was injured after a check from behind and became a symbol for ridding hockey of dangerous play.
By Sunday morning, that informal conversation led to an amendment to continue the stiffer penalty approach, enacted on an interim basis last winter, for the 2012-13 season.
Margenau said the move to stay the course reflected concern that the change was only in place for about a month before most teams finished playing. He said "many felt that we didn't have enough data" to thoroughly analyze how the stiffer penalties were working.
They saw statistics collected from a sampling of Bantam A games, with players ages 14 and 15, that showed checking from behind and boarding penalties each called at a rate of 14 per 100 games played after the stiffer penalty was enacted. In the portion of the 2011-12 season played before the change, penalties for checking from behind were called nearly 10 times per 100 games, while boarding was called more often, nearly 21 times per 100 games.
Some officials cautioned against reading too much into the numbers, saying they likely were skewed by how players and officials reacted in the wake of the Jablonski injury and ensuing public awareness.
Sunday's vote keeps youth hockey in sync with the Minnesota State High School League, which made similar changes to penalties for checking from behind, boarding and head contact and is keeping them in effect for another year.
Jablonski's father, Mike, said he was surprised to learn, after press accounts about the committee's proposal, that the board extended the stiffer penalties for another season.
"This will reward the teams that emphasize speed and skill and finesse," he said Sunday. "This is great. You just want the kids to be safe and have a good time out there."
The specter of the former Benilde-St. Margaret's skater hung over Saturday's discussion. One member noted that no matter what penalty statistics show, much of the public sees hockey's culture through what happened to Jablonski during a junior varsity game against Wayzata.
"The people don't see the numbers," the member said. "They just see one, lying in the hospital."
Most of the state's youth hockey levels prohibit checking of any kind. Checking is permitted at the Bantam and Junior Gold levels, which together take in about 4,000 players, Margenau said.
Paul Klauda • 612-673-7280