Prep league tightens rules on illegal hockey checks

Jack Jablonski
Jack Jablonski lies in his bed at Hennepin County Medical Center in a Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 photo. Jablonski was paralyzed after being checked from behind in a junior varsity hockey game on Dec. 30, 2011.
Photo courtesy Hennepin County Medical Center

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The group that governs Minnesota high school sports announced tougher penalties for illegal checking in the wake of a horrific injury to a 16-year-old player.

The Minnesota State High School League announced late Saturday that checking from behind will now be a five-minute major penalty, instead of a two-minute penalty. Boarding, defined as any move that sends a player violently into the boards, will be an automatic five-minute major penalty instead of an optional two- or five-minute penalty.

Contact to the head also becomes an automatic five-minute major penalty, instead of allowing an official to use discretion in choosing between two- or five-minute penalties.

The changes take effect immediately.

"This will encourage the reduction and removal of unsafe play," said Craig Perry, the MSHSL associate director in charge of hockey. "It will be one of the steps we'll take to change the culture of high school hockey."

The "major" designation puts the player's team at greater risk of being scored on because it must play short-handed for the full five minutes. Boys' hockey will see more effects, because checking is not allowed in girls' hockey, Perry said. But if there is checking in a girls' game, the stiffer penalties will be enforced.

The league made the changes after Jack Jablonski, a Benilde-St. Margaret's School student, severed his spinal cord when he went head-first into the boards after being checked in a December game. He is not expected to walk again.

A week later, St. Croix Lutheran High School senior Jenna Privette was injured while playing hockey. As of last week, she still had no feeling in her legs, her mother said. Despite initial reports that Privette was illegally checked, the MSHSL determined she was not hit, but fell to the ice on her own.

Perry said the changes, approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations, will be in effect on an experimental basis for three years.

MSHSL Executive Director Dave Stead said he's never seen a major change approved so quickly and implemented midseason.

"This wasn't a knee-jerk reaction," Perry said. "We are educators, and everyone is unified to change the culture for the best. We've had this on our minds for quite some time."

Andover High School junior Nick Manney, a summer league teammate of Jablonski, said players need to be more aware.

"Checking is a big part of the game, but there's a line players have crossed way too many times. A lot of kids think hitting is cool and to knock a guy out is OK. It's not. It was getting to the point where we needed a change after the horrible incidents of late," Manney said. "I'm glad that change is here."

The league will post a video on its website in about a week to help teach players, coaches and officials about proper checking techniques and illegal hits.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)