Two tragic spine injuries in Minnesota high school hockey games in the last month have sparked debate among parents, officials, and fans over how the rough sport can be made safer.
On Dec. 30, 16-year-old high school sophomore Jack Jablonski’s spine was severely damaged at the neck when he was checked twice from behind in a junior varsity game and crashed headfirst into the boards of the rink. After surgery to repair two vertebrae in his neck, the teen has begun rehabilitation, but his doctors don’t expect him to walk again.
Then, on January 6, high school senior Jenna Privette’s spine was injured when she fell either after crashing into the boards on her own or after having been slammed into them by an opposing player. Officials and family members are in vehement disagreement on the cause of the 18-year-old’s injury. It’s unclear whether Privette will recover.
The Minnesota State High School League acted quickly announcing tougher penalties for three types of infractions that increase the risk of spine injuries: checking from behind, boarding, and contact to the head.
In the boys’ games, for example, the penalty for checking from behind increased to a mandatory 5-minute major penalty, plus a 10-minute misconduct.
However, prevention of these kinds of injuries will take a major effort from everyone involved in youth hockey -- from the leagues and officials, to coaches, parents and players themselves, experts say. It will take a combination of stricter rules, better conditioning, smarter playing techniques – and maybe an overhaul of hockey culture itself.
In the wake of Jablonski's devastating injury, his family has started an effort called “Jack’s Pledge,” which includes a Youtube video of high school hockey players pledging to play more safely.
While the tougher rules will only impact boys’ hockey -- checking has always been against the rules in the girls’ game – they can help protect young players, said Dr. Charles Tator, a brain surgeon and professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto who has been studying spine injuries in hockey for over 30 years.
“We’ve shown that these injuries are preventable,” Tator said. “In the 1990s we were seeing as many as 15 [injuries] a year in Canada, but now the number is down to about three or four a year because of new rules against pushing and checking from behind – and awareness on the part of kids, coaches, and parents that this is a dangerous maneuver.”
But rules changes are ineffective unless they’re enforced, said Dr. Michael Stuart, a professor and vice chairman in the department of orthopedics and co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic and chief medical officer at USA Hockey.
Officials, youth coaches, parents and players have to oppose overly aggressive behavior. “I know coaches who will pull players aside and tell them, ‘this is not what our team represents,’” or who sit out players for violent play even when they haven’t received a penalty, Stuart said.
Better conditioning, such as exercises to improve neck muscle strength, can also help prevent spine injuries in young players. “The average kid who breaks his neck is about 17-years-old,” Tator said. “We’ve noticed that in that particular age group they have big biceps and quadriceps that let them skate fast, but their neck muscles are skinny and relatively less developed.”
Players can also be taught better techniques for both receiving and doling out checks, Stuart said. The Mayo clinic specialist has been spearheading programs at USA Hockey to help combat both head and spine injuries.
While the intrinsic roughness of the game makes it more risky to kids’ spines -- as does football -- there are ways to help kids play safer.
One of the biggest issues is how players react when they’re about to crash into the boards, Stuart said. Their tendency is to put their heads down and that can lead to a spine injury.
More from The Star Tribune on the injured hockey players
“That’s why we started promoting a ‘heads up don’t duck’ prevention strategy,” Stuart said. “That makes them more aware of the mechanism of the injury is so they can avoid it.”
But rules changes, muscle strengthening and better playing technique won’t solve everything.
“We’ve witnessed, I think, more violence and aggression than there should be,” Tator explained. “This is one of the things that has been looked at carefully – increasing the emphasis on fair play and trying to reduce the influence of the win-at-all costs attitude. So when parents are in the stands shouting ‘kill em’ or ‘get em,’ they need to realize this isn’t conducive to safe hockey.”
Stuart agreed. “There is a certain culture in sports that overemphasizes winning to the point of promoting intimidation in order to achieve the goal of being victor. We have to teach sportsmanship and respect,” he said. Read more...
Team Russia have failed to win the third stage of the Euro Hockey Tour in Sweden. Zunetula Bilyaletdinov's men were thrashed 4-0 by the Czech Republic on the final day of the competition.
Jakub Nakladal opened the scoring two minutes into the match, and power-play goals by Petr Nedved 13 minutes later, Kamil Kreps in the second period, and Petr Koukal with less than five minutes remaining, completed the scoring in Stockholm.
Russia finished the tournament bottom with just three points after three games and slipped to second in the tour’s overall standings. However, the team’s head coach Zunetula Bilyaletdinov didn’t let the result get him down too much, saying that the tournament would be a good lesson and experience for the bunch of new players.
The Oddset Hockey Games winner was crowned in the concluding match, when Sweden hammered historic rivals Finland, winning 5-0.
The Euro Hockey Tour's final leg is the Czech Hockey Games in late April before the start of the World Cup co-hosted by Sweden and Finland.
With the Windsor Arena soon set to close its doors after an 87-year run, the number of ancient hockey rinks keeps dwindling. The world’s oldest indoor rink is Matthews Arena at Northeastern University, which started life as the Boston Arena in 1910. (A 1918 fire knocked it out of action for two seasons, so the Calumet Colosseum in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, built in 1913, also lays claim to the distinction.)
But in Buffalo there is a building older than both of those that briefly housed professional hockey. Today it is a garage for the city department of public works, used to store large trucks and road salt, and even in Buffalo few are aware of its existence. But that hulking structure was once the Broadway Auditorium, and it may be the world’s oldest extant building to have hosted hockey.
The building dates to 1858, when it was built as an armory, although renovations and conversions may more accurately put the current structure’s date at 1887 or 1898. In 1910 it became the Broadway Auditorium, an arena for boxing, conventions, circuses and the like. It was there for the birth of box lacrosse in the early ‘30s; the Six Nations star Harry Smith played on its floor before he went on to Hollywood and greater fame as Jay Silverheels, Tonto in the “Lone Ranger” series.
And for a stretch of less than one year, there was hockey at the Broadway Aud. The story is told on the Web site bisonshistory.com.
In 1930-31 Buffalo already had a minor league team, the Bisons of the International Hockey League, ensconced at the Peace Bridge Arena across the Niagara River in Fort Erie, Ontario. But that year a second minor-league team arose — the Buffalo Majors of the American Hockey Association, the Midwestern loop with clubs in Minneapolis; St. Paul; Duluth, Minn.; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Chicago. The Majors were going to skate at the Broadway Auditorium, where a 185-by-86-foot ice surface was to be installed.
Completion of the ice plant was delayed past the Dec. 13 season opener, but it was finally ready for the game vs. the Duluth Hornets on Jan. 25, 1931. A packed house of 7,500 saw the Majors, wearing star-spangled sweaters that looked very much like New York Americans uniforms, rally from 0-2 down to a 3-2 overtime victory. At times the game was stopped because puddles had formed on the ice.
An American Bowling Congress tournament was booked into the Broadway Aud for February, so the Majors played only six games there that season. But they went undefeated in those half-dozen contests on Broadway, culminating in a 2-2 tie with the Minneapolis Millers on Feb. 8. For their last 12 home games, the Majors paid the Bisons to play across the river in Fort Erie.
The Majors returned for the next season, but the Great Depression was on in earnest. Poor performance on the ice, growing debts and crippling travel costs took their toll. The club played its last game on Jan. 20 and folded within two weeks.
Thus ended the Broadway Auditorium’s brief period as a hockey arena. In 1940 Memorial Auditorium opened less than a mile away, atop the old Erie Canal terminus, and replaced the Broadway Aud as Buffalo’s civic arena. By the time it became home to the Sabres in 1970, the Broadway Auditorium had long since been converted to a D.P.W. garage.
Memorial Auditorium was demolished in 2009, but the Broadway Auditorium still stands. That it was built no later than 1898 and still stands today with those dozen or so Buffalo Majors games in its past might make it the world’s oldest building to have hosted hockey, albeit with a big asterisk, of course.
Last year the mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, suggested that the garage be torn down because he saw it as intruding on the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor, which includes a church that was central to the abolitionist movement. But Brown seemed unaware of the building’s long history and its role in Six Nations sports heritage as a center of early box lacrosse. Nor did he seem to acknowledge that the building is still serving a useful purpose, unlike so many other buildings in Buffalo that stand vacant and disused; the estimated cost of a new D.P.W. garage is $25 million.
On Monday morning, it was snowing in Buffalo, so trucks were pulling in and out of the Broadway Auditorum’s vast, vaulted interior carrying road salt. There was no trace of the sports venue it had once been, but the arches and trusses that held up the roof and its sturdy brick walls made it look very much like the Windsor Arena beyond the other end of Lake Erie. It did not take a huge leap of imagination to see the Buffalo Majors skating on a rink laid out on the ancient building’s floor, or fans in the stands, cheering and shouting, their cigar smoke curling up through shafts of light from the gallery of windows in the ceiling.