Every community with a hockey program at any level should be concerned on how the game is coached, officiated and played, following the checking-from-behind accident that has paralyzed Jack Jablonski, a sophomore from Benilde-St. Margaret High School.
The state and the nation are paying attention to Jablonski’s recovery and the need for leaders of hockey programs to examine how coaches teach checking (body contact) in all age groups.
As facts become known, it’s surprising more checking from behind is happening, because it is illegal. In the first month of this high school hockey season 24 boys have been ejected for checking from behind.
No checking from behind is supposed to be allowed in girls hockey, yet four cases of it have already been reported this season. A St. Croix Lutheran High School player, Jenna Privette of West St. Paul, is hospitalized, after apparently being checked from behind.
The severity of Jablonski’s injury that paralyzed him, has caused hockey leaders and coaches in Minnesota to sound the alarm that the sport is under siege and that everything possible must be done to avoid back-checking.
Minnesota Hockey President Dave Margenau sent out a letter to all coaches urging them to work on correct body contact, to support officials calls, and before every game remind players about the dangers of checking from behind.
Minnesota Hockey has several programs, including a hockey education program, a Heads Up, Don’t Duck program, a STOP Patch program and a Concussion Education program.
The Minnesota State High School League also has mailed a letter to its 280 hockey coaches warning them to eliminate hitting from behind and to emphasize proper body contact techniques.
While no one wants body contact to be eliminated from this popular sport, the public is demanding a monitoring of how checking is being taught and how the rules are being enforced. Some want the offenders to be expelled instead of issuing two-minute and 10-minute penalties.
One high school official said few high school players are expelled for rule violations and it’s rare when a student is expelled from school for the same reason.
Checking is allowed for bantam and high school hockey players. It is banned for peewees, squirts and mites, as it should be.
Those who referee youth hockey games are also coming under fire for not calling enough checking from behind infractions and for not issuing stricter penalties.
Some observers acknowledge the culture of allowing more violent play at the youth levels, particularly from parents, may be contributing to the more severe checking kids see modeled in professional hockey.
In most communities, hockey is left up to associations and high school coaches, with little interference from outside groups, like school boards. High school coaching accountability flows through the athletic director, the principal, the superintendent of schools and the school board.
This matter should concern every high school athletic director and school board to whom coaches should be accountable. Managers of communities that sponsor hockey in their recreational programs also should inquire on how well coaches teach proper body contact and the quality of referees.
While some believe the outcry from the Jablonski injury may be excessive, concern for the safety of young people playing hockey has been heightened and those in charge should see this as an opportunity to make the game safer.
Don Heinzman is the former editor of the Elk River Star News and an editorial writer for ECM Publishers.