Devastating injuries on checks from behind have the game on edge and looking at how to keep players safe.
One week after a Benilde-St Margaret's player was left paralyzed as a result of a hit from behind that put Minnesota high school hockey on edge, another metro player has been hospitalized with a serious game injury.
Jenna Privette, an 18-year-old senior at St. Croix Lutheran High School in West St. Paul, was hit from behind during a hockey game Friday night and fell face down on the ice, unable to move, her parents said.
The extent of her injuries were still being determined Saturday at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. She had no feeling in her legs but tingling and pain in her arms, according to her parents, Dan and Penny Privette of Burnsville.
"She's irritable and in a lot of pain," Dan Privette said, "which is, in a way, kind of good."
Carl Lemke, St. Croix's athletic director, said that an MRI showed no breaks in Jenna's spinal cord.
She was injured in a game she'd dedicated to 16-year-old Jack Jablonski, who is not expected to walk again as a result of the injuries suffered Dec. 30 when he was checked from behind. Privette let her Facebook friends know ahead of Friday's game that she would be playing for "#jabs13."
Her injuries further magnify what has become a gathering crisis for hockey in Minnesota, as players, parents and coaches reexamine the risks of taking the ice.
While coaches have been urging smarter play and calling on officials to more aggressively penalize dangerous hits, others close to the game fault coaches and parents for what they see as a rise in reckless play. Too often, they say, immature, unskilled players are told to "take the body'' of their opponents.
What's certain is that new tension and uncertainty are hanging over a sport considered a birthright by many Minnesotans.
On Tuesday, when teams across the state resumed play on the first big night of games after the holidays, Minnetonka boys' coach Brian Urick said that tension was palpable.
"You could just kind of feel tonight whenever there was a hit along the boards everybody at the rink was on edge a little bit,'' said Urick, whose Skippers played Eagan in Minnetonka.
Tension turned into brawling two nights later in Winona, where a home player was checked from behind by a member of the Owatonna team. With Jablonski's injury fresh in everyone's mind, spectators watched in shock as the checked player went after his opponent. Officials had to eject 10 players before calm was restored.
Hockey is "definitely under the microscope right now," Owatonna coach Josh Storm said on Friday. "For the past three days this is the only thing I've heard about in my locker room."
Ken Pauly, head coach at Benilde, which played Saturday for the first time since Jablonski's injury, agrees that the sport faces questions.
"I don't know how you couldn't have some hard questions after this,'' Pauly said. "My take is, you can't legislate against tragedy. But what can you do to lessen the likelihood that a tragedy will occur?"
Checking from behind
Much of the focus is on checking from behind -- the delivery of a hit to a player who doesn't see it coming and can't protect one's self.
It's what felled Jablonski and set off the Owatonna-Winona brawl, though onlookers at both games said they saw no malice. In youth hockey, players wear stop signs on their jersey backs to deter those hits. In high school, it's not allowed and draws penalties ranging from a two-minute minor and 10-minute misconduct penalty to a five-minute major penalty and ejection.
Bill Kronschnabel, who has been the Minnesota State High School League's coordinator of hockey officials since 1986, said he believes the number of ejections for checking has been falling, but year-over-year numbers have not been kept.
Kronschnabel said he believes "refs are more willing to make the call" than in the past.
Others are convinced that dangerous hits are on the rise.
"Uncontrolled kamikaze-type of hits don't do anybody any good," said Keith Hendrickson, a former high school coach who is a part-time NHL scout. He's seen 87 games this year, most at the high school level. "A lot of times the kid trying to smoke somebody against the boards misses and almost kills himself. There is a lot of uncontrolled stuff going on."
In roughly the first month in Minnesota for varsity and junior varsity hockey this year, there were 28 game ejections for checking from behind, according to the governing body for state high school sports. Of those ejections, 24 went to boys, four to girls.
The lower number among girls stems in part because no checking of any kind is allowed in girls' games. But that doesn't mean checking injuries are unheard of among female players, as the Privettes saw to their horror Friday.
Evan Ziegler, head coach of Privette's team, said he couldn't say whether Privette was checked from behind. "I didn't see the direct play," he said. But Jenna's father said he was certain that's whathappened.
Penny Privette said she knew immediately that something was very wrong after her daughter, who plays for a team made up of players from St. Croix Lutheran, Minnehaha Academy and St. Agnes, fell during the game against the St. Paul Blades, a team of St. Paul public high schools. She has taught her children, who all played hockey, that if they were injured she wanted to see them move their feet.
"No matter what, you have to at least move your feet," Penny said, "so that we know that you're OK.
And this time, they didn't move at all."
While Jenna's Facebook photo features a large, red number 13, encircled with the words, "Jack Jablonski in our hearts," her friends were putting up a similar photo Saturday. It featured Jenna's number, 23, in blue, with the legend "Jenna Privette in our hearts."
"The system needs to be reformed,'' Penny Privette said. Checking, she added, "is getting so out of control."
'There is some risk'
Jablonski was checked headfirst into the boards, leaving his spinal cord severed at the neck and two vertebrae fractured. As word of his injury spread, support poured in from pro players, celebrities and thousands around the world who know him only by the Twitter hashtag "Jabs.''
At rinks across Minnesota, the gravity of his prognosis -- life in a wheelchair -- is sinking in.
Hill-Murray boys' coach Bill Lechner said he made two major points to his players last week: "Don't take things for granted, and you can play as tough as the rules allow face-to-face away from the boards."
Lechner said everyone is "trying to be respectful to [Jablonski] because once is more than enough, but there's still a lot of kids playing hockey at a lot of levels for multiple hours every day. Whatever activities you do, there is some risk."
Minnetonka junior forward Max Coatta said that while he realizes that "it could happen to any one of us," he won't let it affect his aggressiveness. "Once you get out there, you're just playing the game."
Eagan boys' coach Mike Taylor said when hitting from behind happens in practice, "We try to identify that but they're also not robots. They're kids, and they're going to make foolish mistakes."
'Change will not come easy'
Jablonski's parents, Leslie and Mike, make the point more emphatically:
"We just want to make sure this doesn't happen again,'' Leslie said last week. "And if they keep playing the game the way it is, there's going to be more attacks in situations like this."
The effort to end checking from behind is nearly a decade old, according to the high school league, which counts 280 teams under its banner. Last week it sent a memo calling on players, coaches and officials to renew efforts to address the problem.
The message must be communicated from the beginning, since too often the youngest players "are simply told to 'go hit now that you are old enough' for that part of the game,'' Totino-Grace boys' coach Mark Loahr said. "Add in the disrespect they see on TV among NHL players, ones who model the behavior for many young hockey players, and we have a bad combination.''
High school coaches say they emphasize proper technique when checking, maintaining body control to gain control of the puck and not to knock over an opponent.
"The difficult part is that is an extremely fast game with big players on a sheet of ice that seems to get smaller as the size and speed of the players increases," Mound-Westonka boys' coach Doug Runke said.
Time for tougher penalties?
Others say more aggressive penalties are needed. Referees, they add, tend to give out lighter penalties when they can because they are reluctant to sit young players for long stretches.
Urick wants the consequences for checking from behind in high school to include an ejection.
Pauly, the Benilde coach, said he sees "a little ganging up'' on hockey now, considering the violence also inherent in football.
"That said, the permissive culture of checking from behind is an issue. Why would that not be treated like fighting? Do we need rule changes? No. We need a change in mentality," Pauly said.