by Jason Olson
Late and great Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks had a vision to bring groups together from all levels of the game to work together to make it better.
The first of what perhaps will be an annual gathering called the Players Safety Summit, organized by the Herb Brooks Foundation, brought together more than a dozen notable figures, including Mike Jablonski, Jack’s father, with hopes of opening a dialogue about how to address player safety.
The summit March 8, which took place the morning of the Class AA state boys’ hockey tournament quarterfinals at the St. Paul RiverCentre, offered a perfect chance for representatives from the youth level through college and professional ranks to offer their insights from a player, coach, administrator and referee standpoint.
Many sitting around the table held multiple titles, which offered a unique perspective on the situation of head injuries and concussion.
“We heard from all levels about addressing this issue and the common idea was how can we use these incidents as a wake-up call to the hockey community,” said Rob Leer, media contact for the Herb Brooks Foundation.
As each speaker introduced themselves and shared their perspective, one common theme prevailed: a need to change the culture of the game and return to rewarding skill over physical play.
Suggestions ranged from rules, equipment and even modified rinks to reduce injuries in addition to collecting data that would help direct those efforts. The toughest change might come in the psyche of those trusted to lead the next generation of hockey players in the state of hockey.
Neil Sheehy, a former college and NHL player and now an agent, said all the time growing up he tried to be a physical player because that’s what he believed it took to reach his dreams of playing in the NHL.
That was until his coach at Harvard, Bill Cleary, told him to work on his skating, shooting and passing instead of playing physical, according to Sheehy.
That advice helped him scratch out a career as a physical defenseman in the NHL and he hopes the philosophy of emphasizing skills over physical presence will return to the rink, Sheehy said.
University of Minnesota Hockey Coach Don Lucia struck a cord when he asked, “Do we coach intimidation and fighting or skill and speed of the game?”
Lucia recalled when his son was criticized at a peewee tryout for being a skilled player and not physical enough as a 12-year-old.
As a follow-up, Lucia talked about the game’s evolution since he began coaching over 30 years ago in terms of stronger and faster players. The same can be said about the equipment which he said, “has increased the recklessness.”
That recklessness perhaps comes from a more “gladiator approach whether diving face-first to block shots to much more protection where you’re not going to get hurt,” Lucia said.
Moving away from the full-face mask to the shield would force players to think more before making a questionable situation, he said.
Lucia suggested that tightening up officiating calls would help, but looking at equipment is another step to improving the game.
“Have we traded more serious injuries for a few stitches?” he asked.
Minnesota Hockey Coach-in-Chief Hal Tearse said more accountability at the high school level of coaches and referees would help move away from a situation which seems to say, “Since when did it become OK to blast a kid from behind?”
Jon Bittner, past president of the Minnesota Boys’ Hockey Coaches Association, told those at the summit that they are the new keepers of the game and it will take courage to make the necessary changes. He compared the path ahead to how NASCAR responded to safety issues over the last decade and how it prevailed with changes, despite concerns from long-time supporters.
The goal of the summit wasn’t to institute new ideas or concepts, but to discuss issues surrounding players getting hurt – especially given the circumstances around two tragedies on the ice this season – Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette.
Dave Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, spoke about the steps that the high school league took in reaction to the Jablonski incident.
“We didn’t want a knee-jerk reaction, but we worked in concert with the coaches and officials about how to make the game safe,” he said.
What resulted was increased penalties on hits to the head, boarding and checking from behind, Stead said.
Each is now an automatic major penalty with checking from behind earning an additional game misconduct, he said.
As a result, the offending team plays without one skater for five minutes, no matter how many goals are scored.
This new rule came into play early in the Section 5AA final when Blaine’s Michael Brodzinski was called for a major penalty 19 seconds into the game.
Maple Grove scored four times and led 6-0 before Brodzinski was released from the box. The Crimson went on to win 15-1 for its first section title.
Rob McClanahan, a member of the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal team and board member of the Herb Brooks Foundation said the need is there “to transform those who play the game, not the game itself.”
He emphasized that the basic concept of a check is to separate a player from the puck, instead of trying to send the player through the glass as one example of how aggressive the game has got in philosophy and away from the original plans.
Discussion surrounding ways to get away from a culture of intimidation or fighting spoke to the degree in which the change is needed in the game.
“There was a lot of good information shared by what I call is a very good cross section of parts of hockey in Minnesota,” said Tim Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Coaches Association and an assistant coach at Blaine this season under Steve Guider.
“The information is good. Now it’s our time to act on it and that’s the next step.”
The dialogue at the high school level will continue between coaches, league administrators, families and officials, Morris said.
Morris led Eden Prairie to four state tournament appearances and won two state titles (2006, 2008) during his 10 years as coach before stepping down after the 2010-11 season.
On the girls’ side he’s seen an increase of the physical play, despite the elimination of checking from the game, Morris said.
“Some of those girls think that because there is no checking that there isn’t any contact and that’s where it is critical,” he said. “Some of it is a strength issue with the girls and having to develop neck muscles which causes their head to go side-to-side which is a large cause of the concussion type things.”
Morris said this year’s team had two or three players sustain a concussion during the season, but they might have gone undiscovered until a doctor visit after the fact.
“Quite a few girls tend to get concussions,” he said. “These were injuries after the fact when a player went to the doctor and said, ‘I have a headache.’ And the doctor said, ‘You had a concussion and never even knew it.’”
Improving player and parent education about head injuries is another needed area of improvement.
Dan Brooks, Herb’s son and director of the foundation, said the discussion was great and he hopes it continues and action will be taken to make the game safer.
“The foundation is multi-faceted and my father was all about change and challenging the status quo,” Brooks said. “A lot of things in hockey need to be changed and safety issue is one of them,” he said.
Brooks hopes the summit will become a yearly tradition to discuss other broad issues facing the game across all levels of competition – youth, high school, collegiate and the pros.
“Thursday morning of the state tournament, you have a lot of influential people in St. Paul and to have a morning session like this to get ideas out in the open is a great thing,” Brooks said.