By Jon Tatting
Having never played a hockey game, I can only imagine what it feels like to be struck in the body while on skates. A regular observer of local, Gopher and Wild games, however, I can appreciate the “big hit” when it’s a legitimate one.
The life-changing injuries to Benilde-St. Margaret’s Jack Jablonski and St. Croix Lutheran’s Jenna Privette were indeed eye-openers for the state of hockey. Though Jack doesn’t mark the first to be on the receiving end of a paralyzing check from behind, he will hopefully be the last with the stricter penalty structure imposed by the Minnesota State High School League.
The North Branch boys hockey team made state history on Jan. 16 when it and the WSFLG Blizzard (a Wisconsin cooperative consisting of Frederic, Grantsburg, Luck, Siren and Webster schools) were the first to play under the new rules in Lindstrom.
Players competed knowing checking from behind is now a 5-minute major plus a 10-minute misconduct penalty, while boarding and contact to head penalties warrant automatic majors.
Though the Vikings ended up losing 7-1, they could have gone ahead in the first period when a boarding penalty was called against the Blizzard. Rather than a 2-minute minor, the referees enforced the new major penalty allowing North Branch to go on the power play for 5 uninterrupted minutes.
The boys were not able to score, but Vikings coach Mike Deschneau can see how the penalty can change the course of a game. “That’s almost a third of a period,” he said, noting even a power play goal doesn’t allow a team to regain its penalized player during a major penalty.
Overall, Deschneau is pleased with the stiffened rule changes because “it reinforces the fundamentals of the game and how to properly play the body” rather than focusing on the “big hit,” he explained. And while he wishes significant penalty minutes were not the answer to ridding of the violence, he understands the new rules have to be applied for change to happen.
Prior to the contest, Deschneau said he reminded his players on how to properly play the physical part of the game — that there is a right way of using the body to create turnovers. He read the rules changes verbatim to the guys, noting a lot of times we are in control of unnecessary hits such as boarding, checking from behind and blows to the head.
As for the players, their coach believes they are on board with the changes and can relate to Jablonski as a fellow student athlete playing a contact and sometimes dangerous sport. “They know they have to adapt their game,” he explained.
And that’s the hope — that all players will be mindful of their game for a safer, more enjoyable brand of hockey.