A panel of hockey coaches, referees and other experts on Thursday said that changes to the game — from enforcing stiffer penalties for dangerous plays to emphasizing skill instead of intimidation — could help make the game safer.
Prompted in part by an injury to Benilde-St. Margaret's High School player Jack Jablonski, who was paralyzed after being checked from behind during a game this season, hockey leaders gathered in St. Paul to talk about how to better protect players.
They discussed whether enforcing stiffer penalties would improve safety and also whether better equipment has made players fearless.
"Have we traded more serious injuries for a few stitches or a missing tooth?" asked University of Minnesota head hockey coach Don Lucia. "That's a question I have."
He remembers when full face masks were added to the college game in the early 1980s.
But Lucia and many of the other panelists kept coming back to a common theme: the culture of the game itself.
"It shouldn't be about intimidation; it shouldn't be about fighting," he said. "Do we coach the intimidation factor of our game, or do we coach the speed and skill of our game?"
The panelists said injuries like concussions are less likely when players are skilled at the sport.
Knowledge of the rules was also cited as an important factor in keeping the game safe. For example, panelists said some players and their parents don't understand what a proper, safe check is.
“As Minnesota goes, so goes the [hockey] world.”Skip Prince, USHL commissioner
"The official definition of checking is to separate the player from the puck, not to drive them through the boards or knock them into next year," said Rob McClanahan, a former member of the U.S. Hockey Team and Olympian. He's on the board of the Herb Brooks Foundation, which organized the event.
"We have the opportunity to get this game back on track and to move it in the right direction," McClanahan said.
But the panelists acknowledged that that won't be easy.
John Bittner, a past president of the Minnesota Boys Hockey Coaches Association, said coaches, officials, school administrators and others want to predict what might happen in a hockey game and enact measures to prevent serious injuries.
"It's going to take courage from all of us because we're going to be criticized," he said.
After Jack Jablonski's injury, the Minnesota State High School League implemented tougher penalties for checking from behind, boarding, and hits to the head. League officials say they're considering the effect those changes are having and will decide whether to keep them in place.
The discussions in Minnesota carry a lot of weight nationally, said Skip Prince, the commissioner of the United States Hockey League. About 400 players compete in the USHL, an amateur league for young players who hope to play for Division I college teams or the NHL. More than a third are from Minnesota.
"As Minnesota goes, so goes the world," Prince said. "So for us, what goes on here is very important. It's crucial. And we are, I think, at the brink hopefully of beginning to see some of the cultural changes that were discussed, but we're not there yet."
The Herb Brooks Foundation plans to continue the discussions on safety. It will make some recommendations later this year on possible changes to the game.
While the hockey tournament is under way, state league officials are talking to coaches and referees at the Xcel Energy Center about safety. They say they hope those efforts will help prevent serious injuries during tournament games.