It's been more than a year since Benilde-St. Margaret's School hockey player Jack Jablonski was paralyzed after he was checked into the boards during a game.
Since then, Minnesota Hockey instituted tougher penalties for dangerous play as part of statewide efforts to make hockey safer. Hockey officials are evaluating whether the new safety rules have been effective.
After Jablonski was hurt, the state high school hockey league increased penalties and enforcement for three dangerous hits, which the league says cause the most injuries:
• Checking from behind, which causes a player to crash headfirst into the boards or goal frame.
• Sending an opponent into the boards.
• Contact with an opponent's head or neck.
The new rules are temporary but Ken Pauly, president of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, says they should be made permanent.
“We are just trying to give the game back to who it belongs to -- the kids with the skill and not the kids that just want to bang people around.”Ken Pauly, president of Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association
Pauly is also the boys hockey coach at Benilde-St. Margaret's and was Jablonski's coach at the time of the accident.
"No one is trying to legislate against tragedy," Pauly said. "We are just trying to give the game back to who it belongs to -- the kids with the skill and not the kids that just want to bang people around."
Prohibiting violent behavior, Pauly says, also gives young players the freedom to improve their game without fear of getting hit.
Any kind of body checking has been illegal for players under 14 for several years. But since Jablonski's accident, Minnesota Hockey has stepped up its statewide campaign to keep kids of all ages from getting injured.
In addition to the new penalties, coaches are also required to complete training on preventing and managing concussions.
At an ice rink in St. Louis Park, Brainerd in blue and white faces off against Minneapolis in black and red in the twelve year old Peewee regional hockey tournament.
The game is fast and there's contact -- but no body checking.
Minneapolis mom Beth Murphy stands by the rink and cheers for her son, Owen.
Murphy accepts legal checking as an integral part of hockey, but she supports the ban for kids her son's age.
Postponing checking allows kids to develop their skills and levels the playing field at an awkward age, she said.
"I also think that there is a huge difference in the size of kids when they are around 12-years old, that I like that they are waiting a little bit longer so that more of the kids have begun to mature already by the time that they are becoming more physical," Murphy said.
After the game, player Jakob Ebinger, 14, of Brainerd says he is seeing fewer injuries on the ice since the new rules went into effect. While at his age he is allowed to check, he said the players on his team are now more careful.
"Because now the penalties are a lot more and you spend more time in the penalty box and they don't want to do that," Ebinger said. "So they aren't going to go out of their way to hit someone when they shouldn't."
Coaches say the new rules have been effective too. But even bigger changes are needed to really keep kids safe, said Paul Larson, president of Minneapolis Hockey.
"The whole impetus around playing safer hockey is to make it a cultural change, not just rule change," Larson said. "So parents encourage kids to play safer hockey and they're not yelling from the stands to go hit somebody, and that coaches are teaching more of a skill game rather than an assertive, aggressive game."
The new rules to prohibit checking from behind, boarding and head contact are still in the pilot phase. Minnesota Hockey officials say the organization will consider whether to make the changes permanent next month.