Every high school coach has a pre-game speech. It includes motivating their players and going over the game plan. Maybe some last-minute tweaking of said plan.
Now, high school hockey coaches in Minnesota are being asked to add one more thing to their pre-game ritual:
"Remember guys, no checking from behind. Got that?"
Checking from behind has always been illegal in hockey; if it happens along the boards, it's called boarding, and the results, as we saw last week, can be devastating.
Just ask Jack Jablonski, a slick-skating, 16-year old sophomore for Benilde-St. Margaret, who was double-checked from behind in a recent game. He went from ice to hospital bed with two broken bones in his neck.
He'll never walk again.
In response to the incident, the Minnesota State High School League sent out a letter to all hockey coaches this week to tell their players something they already know, but something that can be pretty hard to control in the heat of the battle.
The letter tells coaches to remind their players to not hit an opponent from behind - don't hit them if you can see their number - to emphasize checking and contact technique, and to remind their team to be aware of hitting-from-behind situations before every game and every period. Players are urged to "keep it clean and hit the breaks when you see the numbers on the back of the jersey," the letter said.
The MSHSL did the right thing in sending out the reminder, but it should be just the first step. The League sending a letter reminding hockey coaches to tell their players not to hit from behind is like the Department of Public Safety sending drivers a letter reminding them not to drink and drive. Two days after the letter was sent, a similar check took place in a high school game in Winona that led to a fight and 10 ejections, the Associated Press reported.
Up until recently, Minnesota was the only state under the USA Hockey umbrella that opposed getting rid of checking at the Peewee level, but failed in an attempt to let players continue to practice checking, so it's now banned for 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds. The objective of the no-checking rule is to eliminate the big hits that occur when players ignore the puck and instead focus on crushing - some call it "blowing up" - an opponent, which is what these kids love to watch on ESPN.
A big hit in hockey is like a slam dunk in basketball - TV loves to sensationalize it by showing it over and over again. It's kind of an ooh-aah phenomenon.
Safety is being emphasized, it seems, more than ever at all levels of sports. Concussions have been the topic du-jour for the last few years. Here's the problem: We're all hypocrites, especially the media. Sports enthusiasts love to see those big hits that are replayed more often than episodes of "Scrubs." And what captures our attention more during a hockey game - a great save, or a bone-crushing hit? Or a fight between two enforcers? Sports commentators will tell a story with a heavy heart and soft voice about an athlete who will never walk again because of a simple hit to the wrong place, and then five minutes later the network that employs him will run the Top 10 Hits of the Week.
At least high school hockey doesn't have enforcers, but if you think one tragic injury's going to change the way kids play the sport, you're dreaming. Might change their mindset a little, but once they hit the ice But it's not their fault - they're competitors playing a fast-paced, contact sport where only the best skaters can come close to stopping on a dime. The faster the game is, the more judgement is blurred, and coaches can remind players with every breath they take not to hit a kid from behind, but that won't stop it from happening again, although rarely does it put a kid in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Yes, we can warn our young athletes about the dangers of hitting from behind; our schools can purchase the newest, safest football helmets Riddell can produce, but there will still be 15-year-olds taken off the field or rink on stretchers, there will still be concussions. What we should be doing - besides fitting our kids with the best equipment - is changing the rules: You hit a player from behind, you're out. You hit a player helmet-to-helmet, you're done. Don't give them a penalty, give them a seat on the bench and tell them to get comfortable.
Fifteen yards? How about 15 games?
High school hockey rules revisions effective for the 2011-12 school year include that no contact with an opposing player's head or neck area will be allowed at any time in high school ice hockey and that any contact of that kind could result in a stand-alone minor or major penalty, or even a disqualification. This was one of six rules changes approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations Ice Hockey Rules Committee in April 2011. The change was made to heighten awareness of the seriousness of any type of contact to the head, as well as that of any action that might cause a concussion, much like the potential of serious injury caused by checking from behind. Good rule, except for one part: "even" a disqualification? Even? So maybe, maybe not?
Why not just take the subjectivity out of it and enforce an automatic DQ? The player who hit Jablonski was ejected, and so should future players who make similar hits - and not just for one game, either. No player takes the field with the intent of hurting another, and you can be sure the kid who sent Jablonski to the hospital feels simply horrible, but how many kids have to be turned into cripples before major reform is made?
Even "freak" accidents should be enough to spur major changes to the rules.