Despite tragedies, hockey reformer finds resistance to change

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2012 - 10:45 PM

Coach and hockey reformer Hal Tearse does not expect swift, meaningful change in the teaching of checking and the enforcing of rules, even in the wake of grave injuries to two young players in the span of eight days.

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Teaching and enforcing checking rules continues to go against what some coaches and parents want, even after tragic injuries such as Jack Jablonski’s.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Hal Tearse became a hockey coach for the usual reasons: He loves the game, and he loves teaching it to kids. There was one other motive, however. When Tearse sat in the bleachers at youth games, he couldn't stand listening to otherwise sane people saying ridiculous things.

As boys' varsity coach at Providence Academy -- and as chairman of the safety committee and coach-in-chief for Minnesota Hockey -- he hasn't found much relief. Tearse routinely hears coaches and parents berating referees for enforcing rules. He sees spectators celebrating crushing hits more than they cheer goals. Last year, when he advocated a USA Hockey proposal to delay checking until age 13, he was met with outrage from a majority determined to preserve the spectacle of 11-year-olds smashing into each other.

That is why Tearse does not expect swift, meaningful change in the wake of grave injuries to two young players in the span of eight days. It's easy to drop some cash into a jug, make a get-well poster or wear a number on a patch to honor Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette. It is much harder to commit to a genuine, concerted effort to make the game safer.

Too many coaches and parents aren't even interested in enforcing the rules, let alone changing a culture that glorifies checking as a tool of intimidation and aggression. That behavior has continued in rinks around Minnesota, even as everyone talked about the two teenagers lying paralyzed in hospital beds. That is shameful in a state that claims to cherish both the game and its children.

"We're talking about changing the behavior and attitudes of a lot of people," Tearse said. "Kids who have been brought up playing youth hockey are told that hitting is the road to success, as opposed to skill.

"You can boil it all down to one word: winning. Everyone wants to do everything they can to win. There is very little consequence for violating the rules, and kids get all these little messages that [breaking rules] is really OK. Clearly, we need to do a better job, but I don't know the answer to all this."

Tearse has been trying to find one, but his voice of reason has been lost in the wilderness. Sensible adults ought to demand that youth sports be run in a way that minimizes risk and keeps the game fun. Hockey has been overrun with parents and coaches caught up in the NHL tough-guy ethos, who want their 14-year-olds to ape Cal Clutterbuck and praise them when they blow up a kid in the corner.

As noted in the USA Hockey rule book, checking -- and the proper term is "checking," not "hitting" -- has one clearly defined purpose. It is to separate an opponent from the puck. That has been lost on too many adults, who see it as a means to intimidate, injure an opponent or ignite the crowd. They pass that attitude on to children, who see it reinforced by their NHL heroes.

Though there are rules against acts such as boarding and checking from behind, kids get mixed messages when coaches and parents criticize referees for calling penalties. Referees often become reluctant to make the calls. Then someone gets hurt, and it's labeled an accident, inevitable in a sport with inherent risk.

That is a cop-out. There would be fewer injuries -- and better sportsmanship -- if rules were uniformly enforced and officials' decisions were respected. There also are ways to reduce risk, including the USA Hockey checking changes passed last year.

Checking had been allowed beginning at the peewee level (ages 11-12). The organization, which is the national governing body for youth and amateur hockey, proposed delaying it until the bantam level (age 13-14), motivated in part by a Canadian study that showed a higher rate of injury in leagues that allowed peewees to check. Under the proposal, kids would have another year to develop skills without checking. It also encourages introduction of legal body contact at younger ages, so players can progressively learn how to play physical yet clean hockey, and mandates training for youth coaches, including how to teach kids to check properly.

Minnesota Hockey opposed it, despite its endorsement by NHL veterans and Mayo Clinic doctors. It passed overwhelmingly. Tearse, though, said young players still are getting little or no training in how to check.

The best tribute to Jablonski and Privette would be to reinforce respect for the rules of hockey, while ensuring kids understand the purpose and proper technique of checking. Tearse will keep forging ahead, but he knows the prevailing attitudes will not shift easily, despite two tragedies in one week.

"It takes a lot of energy to change direction," he said. "In six months, I don't know if there's enough collective will to make changes. It's a pretty daunting task."

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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