Just like many seasons in the past, this one started out with several good early season games, and outstanding performances by such players as Hannah Brandt, Samantha Donovan, and others. Also some great team performances by Benilde, Hill Murray, Irondale, Breck, Warroad, and Anoka, among others. Then on one of the last days in December a young man gets checked from behind and his life changes forever. The following week a young women in similar circumstances falls to the ice, and still is without feeling in her lower extremities. The result for those two players was devastating. The result for the game of hockey was closer scrutiny than it has seen in my recent memory. This could be a season to remember...or one to forget!
This is not the first time the game has come under the microscope and it won't be the last, but because this game is so much fun to play, and to watch, we in Minnesota felt an obligation to try and figure out what went wrong, and what could be done to correct it. Because of my experience in the tragic loss of my left eye while playing this game some 45 years ago, I have thought many times about how dangerous the game could be, and how lucky we are that these tragic misfortunes don't occur more often. My loss was insignificant in comparison to the two young players from Benilde, and St Croix Lutheran, but there have been others in the past. Remember the young man, Travis Roy, who 11 seconds into his college career went head first into the boards while playing for Boston College. He too suffered a spinal injury that changed his life. Two years ago a Michigan boy went head long into the boards and broke his neck. That was also tributed to a hit from behind. The Wild have had many injuries this year, but the hit from behind that plastered Pierre Marc Bouchard into the boards was horrible, and I thought he too might be out for good, especially with his recent history of concussions. It is a credit to his physical strength that he has made the recovery he has. What is happening to this great game?
The game has always had the potential for serious injury, and it is a credit to the training our players get, that there is not a lot more. Think about it for a moment (and only for a moment, because it's scary), we send players out on the ice with razor sharp blades that we can't even run our fingers down them without a serious cut. We have sticks in our hands with thin rigid blades that we often carry waist high and above. We break with great speed toward a steel goal anchored into the ice. Years ago it was anchored much more solidly. There was one instance where a player from the NHL had his upper leg and buttocks impaled on a portion of the old style goals. The NHL (I still think) foolishly lets players chase the length of the ice to try and touch a puck and prevent icing. Amateur hockey finally saw the injury potential in that, and now blows an automatic icing when the puck crosses the goal line. The list could go on and on.
To our credit, we have tried to make changes that might make things safer without dramatically changing the game, and we have for the most part been successful. We who love the game try to do the best we can to change, modify, tweak, and alter parts of the game to make it safer without changing the overall character of it. The MSHSL has always tried to stay ahead of the curve in that respect. That is why the two advisory groups from boys and girls high school hockey came together with the MSHSL to make some needed course correction from the direction high school hockey was going. I was there as the president of the girl's association, and can tell you that an intense discussion took place that lasted 4 hours, with the end result being tougher penalties and interpretations for the three areas that generally lead to possible serious injury. This was done to make the game what it should be, not what it was starting to become!
High school hockey has tackled these types of problems before, and has successfully modified parts of the game without changing the nature, character, and beauty of the game itself. Fighting seems to be a part of the culture of the game. It certainly is at the Pro, Collegiate , and Junior level. Coaches and school administrators felt it should not be a part of the high school game and legislated it out with severe penalties. It didn't hurt the game at our level, and we as coaches feel that the New rule modifications (over a period of time) will get hits from behind, hits to the head, and boarding out of our game as well. As a coach you are often faced with trying to change behavior in order to have your players do the things you feel will make your system work. Herb Brooks had to do that in 1980 when he introduced and emphasized the re-group, and player weave that we take for granted today. Gone, was the up and down your wing behavior that was typical of the style of play in North American hockey. From my coaching experience, the greatest leverage a coach has to change behavior is the player's desire to PLAY, and their love of the game. I have found myself on a number of occasions over a 45 year coaching career saying...I need to have you do these thing to help us on the ice...if you can do these things you can play...if not, I can't play you until you do?
All of the current changes will take time. There will still be hits from behind, to the head, and boarding. In time however, if a player's desire to play takes over...they will not want to sit out due to the new, more severe penalties, and they will change their behavior on the ice. More skill will have to be developed, and that's a plus, but hopefully fewer players like Jack Jablonski, and Jenna Privette will have to suffer through such a major change in their life!