Correct steps being taken to change culture of hockey

It was a high school hockey game in a town where there has been high school hockey for over 30 years.

A hometown player scored a classic breakaway goal to tie the game for his team. He got a loud round of applause from the crowd.

Then the local goalie made a diving stop as he slid across the crease to thwart a breakaway and keep the game tied. He also received a nice hand from local fans.

Then a player on the hometown team made an illegal hit and was called for a penalty as his opponent sprawled into the boards. The cheer was much, much louder and longer than for either of the other plays.

An impressionable 10-year-old youth hockey player told his grandfather that he thought it was a great hit. The grandfather answered, “Yes, but now our team is short-handed.”

Still, the 10-year-old saved his loudest cheer for that play. The other team scored a goal while the local team was short a player, broke the tie and went on to win the game.

That real-life scenario gives an idea of how hard it will be to change the culture of high school and youth hockey where the loudest cheers often come when an opposing player is knocked to the ice.

But the Minnesota State High School League and Minnesota Hockey, the organization that runs youth hockey in Minnesota, made changes in their rules within days after Benilde-St. Margaret’s Jack Jablonski was paralyzed because of an accidental hit from behind in a junior varsity game Dec. 30.

Both organizations should be commended for making timely and needed rule changes. Now the battle will be to change that culture that has honored the big hit in a game more than a good goal, a good pass or a good save by a goalie.

A veteran Minnesota hockey official, while saying he thought the changes bordered on being a knee-jerk reaction because they were made so quickly without a chance for training, still thinks the changes were needed. There will be some growing pains for players, coaches and officials, he said, but the game will be better.

The official, who has officiated high school games for 13 years and college games for six years, says he has already seen a difference in play this season. “I refereed two bantam games this week that were the best bantam games I have seen all year,” the referee said last week. “The focus wasn’t on hitting. It was on speed and moving the puck.”

Both the High School League and state youth hockey association put harsher rules in place for checking from behind, for boarding (a hit or trip that sends an opponent violently into the boards), and for contact-to-the-head situations.

Officials can enforce a game disqualification if they think a hit from behind is flagrant.

The biggest criticism from some has been that the rule changes will take away “big” hits, something that’s been part of hockey in Minnesota for decades.

“But that’s not true,” said the referee. “I’ve seen some of the best hits since the changes. And we’ve got to change the culture.”

The spotlight on officials will shine even brighter the next couple of weeks as sectional and state tournament play take place.

But both the Minnesota State High School League and Minnesota Hockey deserve praise for their actions to implement stricter penalties for dangerous hits.

In the long run those actions will make the sport of hockey, in the State of Hockey, a better game. And that should be the ultimate goal.

This editorial was approved by the ECM Editorial Board. The Morrison County Record is an ECM Publishers Inc. newspaper.