Edina star's injury prompts multi-sport concerns from U's Lucia

By DAVID La VAQUE, Star Tribune

December 9, 2008

Edina's Zach Budish knows that when an elite hockey player gets injured playing football, everyone notices. A torn ACL suffered in the football playoffs means Budish, a Gophers hockey recruit and potential NHL draft pick, will rehabilitate his way through a lost hockey season.

His future in is flux, but Budish has no regrets about his past.

"If a younger hockey player asked me, 'Should I still play football through high school?' I'd say, 'Go do it,'" Budish said. "If you love to play, why not? I could have torn my ACL a number of ways. Obviously, football increases the chances, but you can get just as easily hurt in hockey."

But others, including Don Lucia -- Budish's future coach with the Gophers -- are starting to shift their philosophies. A former football and hockey player at Grand Rapids, Lucia believes times have changed.

"I have never discouraged or encouraged [playing football], but that may change now in light of what happened to Zach and what happened to Garrett, too," said Lucia, who also watched recruit Garrett Smaagaard of Eden Prairie miss his senior year of hockey after tearing his ACL in the 2000 Prep Bowl.

Budish's injury and Lucia's stance underscore a growing conflict between the two sports. Overlapping schedules, competition for varsity spots and the growing trend of specialization have the relationship between football and hockey, as Hill-Murray activities director and hockey coach Bill Lechner said, "at an uncertain point."

Kim Nelson of Edina and Vince Conway of Hill-Murray, who coach football at schools where hockey is king, worry that Budish's injury might make hockey players -- particularly elite-level players -- reconsider playing football.

Their concerns have merit. Just weeks after Budish's injury, Lucia received a verbal commitment from an athlete who played both football and hockey.

"We had a talk," Lucia said. "I said, 'It's time to be a hockey player, not a football player.' He agreed and he's not going to play football next year."

Growing up in the 1970s, Lucia said the sports seasons were more naturally staggered. Football came and went before ice became available. This fall, day one of the Prep Bowl was Nov. 28 while hockey practices began Nov. 17. And for the past seven years, the Upper Midwest High School Elite League offered weekend hockey games for top players from September through mid-November.

Until his injury, Budish played football and in the Elite League, along with other notables such as Gophers hockey recruit and Cretin-Derham Hall quarterback Mark Alt and Edina football and hockey teammate Anders Lee.

Elite League commissioner John Russo said about 30 athletes annual play Elite League hockey and a fall sport, predominately football. He said about one-third of the players miss hockey games because of injuries suffered in fall sports.

The National High School Sport-Related Injury Surveillance Study indicated football produced the highest injury rate among the seven sports examined in each of the past three school years. For every 1,000 kids playing football on a given Friday night across the nation, about 13 can expect to suffer an injury serious enough to make them miss at least one practice.

Injury concerns are part of the reason Conway does not have more hockey players on his roster.

Conway believes Lechner supports the idea of his athletes playing football, but hockey parents are paying tuition for their sons to attend Hill-Murray and garner visibility on the ice. And competition is fierce. About 90 kids tried out for the Pioneers' varsity and junior varsity teams this season.

"We have so many kids that come here to play hockey, and they're looking for any competitive advantage they can get to make the varsity," Conway said. "And some kids do fear getting hurt. So for us, the Budish thing was probably a bad thing."

Only two Hill-Murray athletes are on the varsity hockey team this winter after playing football in the fall: David Bruchu and Ryan Holler. Hill-Murray won the Class 2A boys' hockey state championship last season with only one football player on the roster.

Budish said the numbers of football-hockey players at Edina dwindled long before his injury. He said back in sixth or seventh grade, "the majority of my hockey friends played football."

This year, only three athletes are playing both sports. Budish would have been the fourth.

Eden Prairie hockey coach Lee Smith lives on the other side of the football-hockey reality. Football rules at Eden Prairie, and Smith must wait his turn. The Eagles have played well into November in 12 of the past 13 football seasons.

When Smaagaard's injury forced him to miss the 2000-01 hockey season, he was one of seven players on the varsity football and hockey rosters. In the past few season, only "two or three" football players have made the hockey team. Matt Swanson, an integral part of Eden Prairie's Class 5A state football championship team in 2007, opted to pursue his college football dreams by training and lifting weights rather than playing hockey last season.

Smith said he "would never tell a kid not to play football" because of the risks of injury.

"They can't experience the fear of high school," he said. "They have to experience the joy."

Anders Lee, already considered a top-flight college hockey recruit, could have skipped his senior football season. Instead, he played quarterback for Edina and finished with Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year honors and sparked interest from college football programs.

As a hockey recruit, Lee already has visited Harvard. He still has recruiting trips set up with Denver, Notre Dame and the Gophers. Since Lee is a senior, talking prep football with Lucia will not be necessary. Younger recruits who play football and hockey, however, likely will have a choice to make.

"It doesn't break my heart now if a kid decides he's not going to play football once he's determined he's going to play hockey here," Lucia said. "I'd almost prefer it."