Hockey's catastrophic injuries, and worse: Physician seeks 'big change'

Lou Nanne, Jack Jablonski
Former North Stars general manager Lou Nanne visits Jack Jablonski at Hennepin County Medical Center. Jablonski, 16, was paralyzed after being hit from behind during a junior varsity hockey game on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011. He is a sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret's School in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Photo courtesy of Christine Hill, HCMC

This year's Hockey Day Minnesota will be dedicated to the family of injured high school hockey player Jack Jablonski.

The Benilde-St. Margaret sophomore was paralyzed after being checked from behind during a game nearly two weeks ago. Next Saturday's Hockey Day telethon and auction will benefit a Jablonski family trust fund.

A week after the accident, a second high school hockey player was also seriously injured. St. Croix Lutheran's Jenna Privette begins physical therapy this week, but her family says she remains unable to move her legs.

Minnesota Wild right wing Pierre-Marc Bouchard is now out of action indefinitely after suffering another concussion. And the team, fans and NHL are still reeling from former player Derek Boogaard's death from a drug overdose that many attributed in part with his trying to cope with injuries and pain he suffered as one of the league's most notorious brawlers.

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The recent hockey injuries have prompted coaches, parents and players to re-examine the sport's safety.

Dr. Bill Roberts, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Minnesota, began studying the issue 20 years ago. Roberts, who chairs the medical advisory committee for the Minnesota State High School League, spoke with MPR's Morning Edition.

Phil Picardi: When serious hockey accidents happens, it gets a lot of attention. Should the injuries of Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette scare hockey players, coaches and parents?

Dr. Bill Roberts: It certainly gives one pause when these kinds of catastrophic injuries occur. I think what we see is that injuries like this are relatively rare, so you don't think about them from day to day, and when they occur there's a lot of attention, and then it kind of wanes away over time. So you always wonder, will this be the time when people decide to make a big change?

Picardi: Your research 20 years ago found that illegal violations and hits were happening. You found that they contribute to 66 percent of the injuries during youth games. Did that surprise you? Do you think they happen more today?

Roberts: It's hard to say if they happen more. There's been some follow-up studies to that out of Canada ... that show a persistent level of hockey injury that seems high. The day-to-day injuries that occur in hockey aren't that concerning to me, but these catastrophic injuries draw attention to the risk of the sport.

Picardi: Why is checking from behind so dangerous?

Roberts: When you get body checked from the front side you know it's coming. You see it if you have your head up and you can brace yourself or be ready. If you're not expecting it it's too hard to get your personal protection up, so often the protective reflexes we have aren't quick enough to get the hands up and the head up to protect yourself from the boards. If you're hit from behind and falling to the boards, it's too easy to fracture. These injuries occur faster than a heartbeat, and it just doesn't take much force to break a neck. When you think about the forces involved, you can break your neck at walking speed, and ice hockey is played at two to eight times that speed in the youth leagues, so the risk is always there. That check from behind, that unexpected nudge is all it takes to put somebody down onto the ice and into the boards, is risky.

Picardi: Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard is out from play indefinitely again this week with a concussion. You've been on a task force with USA Hockey that looks at concussion risk. Has the risk increased for players?

Roberts: I think the risk is there because of the permissiveness of hitting has allowed more hits to occur. I think we often assume that the helmet protects the head from concussion when it really doesn't. So we're kind of caught in a quandary: How much hitting is essential for the game? Is hitting, body checking an essential part of the game, and how much risk are we willing to assume for kids playing the game? Concussion is probably the more concerning injury in the day-to-day game of hockey because it does occur pretty frequently.

(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar)