As Minnesota's top high school hockey teams take the ice at the Xcel Energy Center during the State Boys' Hockey Tournament this week, there is greater emphasis being placed on the need to reduce the kind of play that can lead to concussions and other serious injuries.
Awareness of the effects those injuries can have on youth athletes has reached new levels in Minnesota, especially after some high-profile injuries. Jack Jablonski, a student at Benilde-St. Margaret's School, was paralyzed after being checked from behind in a game in late December.
Minnesota State High School League officials said they are having discussions with coaches and officials at the tournament about dangerous plays.
"Our key emphasis has always been, but was heightened this year, to look at those plays that involve contact to the head, checking from behind or boarding," said Craig Perry, who oversees the tournament for the league. "By reemphasizing with our officials that we'd like those calls made, by reemphasizing with the coaches that they work with their kids to reduce those types of situations from happening, we're hopeful that we can have that reduction and look after the kids in the best way we can."
But the discussions are going even further this year. Before hockey powerhouses like Edina and Hill-Murray compete today, national and local hockey officials will meet during a player safety summit organized by the Herb Brooks Foundation. Jacks' father Mike Jablonski, University of Minnesota hockey coach Don Lucia and a representative from the NHL are among those expected to participate.
Injuries like Jablonski's are rare, but concussions are much more common.
A new law that took effect last fall requires coaches of all youth sports to be trained in the signs and symptoms of concussions. And athletes who have had a concussion cannot return to the game without a doctor's approval.
Student athletes are also being encouraged to have what is known as a baseline test, using a computer to measure a person's normal brain function. If the athlete is suspected of suffering a concussion during play, the test would be administered again and a doctor would compare the results. Some schools have required all their athletes to take the test, but there are also hospitals and clinics that offer the test for a nominal fee.
During the state high school tournaments, free testing is taking place at the Science Museum of Minnesota, across the street from the Xcel Energy Center. The test looks at a person's memory, accuracy and speed.
Anne Rowland, a speech pathologist from North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minn., said health professionals are trying to get youth athletes to avoid repeat injury before a first concussion has healed.
"By removing a child from play and having them rest, obviously then you're preventing another concussion from happening, and it's that second, subsequent concussion that can be very, very dangerous," said Rowland, who helped administer the test during the girls' hockey and wrestling tournaments.
About 150 people took the baseline test during those two tournaments, and organizers hope more will test during the boys' tournament, said Craig Hotvedt, director of Health Fair 11, which is sponsoring the screenings.
Dan Woog and his daughter Elle, 10, of Eagan, Minn., took the test. She recently received a hit to the head during one of her hockey games.
"We were in their zone and she just pulled my legs from underneath and I kind of fell. It hurt part of my head, like right here," Elle said, pointing to the side of her head.
Dan Woog, who coaches the team, said deciding whether a player should stay in the game or come out can be a difficult judgment call for coaches and parents.
"I wasn't sure how serious it was," he said. "You're trying to err on the side of caution."
Elle didn't suffer a concussion and continued playing after taking a break. Her dad said it's important to keep things in perspective rather than only focusing on the game at hand.
"We've lost more than our fair share of games this year, and if we lose again it's not that big a deal," he said.
Advocates say that attitude helps players fully recover. David King, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, said concussion-awareness campaigns are paying off. For example, even the video game Madden NFL 12 has changed how it handles concussions.
"This year for the first time, if a player is suspected of having a concussion in the video game, they are out of the game. And in past editions, the coach had the ability to put the player back in," King said. "It's those types of subtle changes that are really going to result in a cultural change."
Despite greater awareness, concussions are still a risk for youth athletes and can have a big impact on teens who play sports while also going to school.
Taylor Olin, 15, of Northfield, Minn., suffered a concussion during a Lakeville South hockey game on Dec. 6. She recently took part in the inaugural meeting in Bloomington of a new support group for teens and their parents to talk about their struggles with concussions.
"The headaches, they hurt a lot. And then just getting back to normal life [is challenging] because everything's harder to do," she said. "I think a lot of people think you're just faking it or that it doesn't hurt anymore."
Three months after her concussion, Taylor still has headaches every day and is behind on her schoolwork. But she says it makes her feel better to know she's not alone and can get the help she needs.
"It was really nice to have someone who understands what you're going through and that can actually relate to your experiences," she said. "People say they know how you feel, but they don't get just how hard going through a day is."
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