In the past month, there have been two tragic spine injuries in Minnesota high school hockey games. Now, parents, officials, and fans are debating over how the rough sport can be made more safe.
High school sophomore Jack Jablonski’s spine was severely damaged at the neck on Dec. 30 when he was checked twice from behind and crashed headfirst into the boards in a junior varsity game. Even after surgery to repair two vertebrae in his neck, his doctors don’t expect him to walk again.
High school senior Jenna Privette’s spine was injured on January 6th when she fell after crashing into the boards. It is unclear if she hit them on her own or if another player slammed her into them. Privette’s recovery is uncertain.
The Minnesota State High School League announced tougher penalties for three infraction types that increase the risk of spine injuries: boarding, checking from behind, and contact to the head. For example the penalty for checking from behind has been increased to a mandatory 5-minute major penalty with a 10-minute misconduct for the boys’ game.
Experts say that the prevention of these catastrophic injuries will require the cooperation of the leagues and officials, coaches, parents and players themselves. There will need to be stricter rules, smarter playing techniques, better conditioning, and possibly even major changes in the culture of hockey itself.
Following Jablonski’s injury, his family has launcher an effort called “Jack’s Pledge,” including a Youtube video featuring high school hockey players pledging to play more safely.
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, said , “We’ve shown that these injuries are preventable…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.”
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, countered that rules changes are ineffective unless they are enforced. He said, “I know coaches who will pull players aside and tell them, ‘this is not what our team represents.’”
Tator pointed to better conditioning, such as exercises to improve neck muscle strength,as another way to prevent spine injuries in young players. He said, “The average kid who breaks his neck is about 17-years-old…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.”
Stuart indicated that players could also benefit from learning better checking techniques. The Mayo clinic specialist spearheaded programs at USA Hockey to help prevent head and spine injuries, and he’s found that one of the biggest issues is that players put their heads down when they’re about to crash into the boards. That can increase the chance of a spine injury.
Stuart said, “That’s why we started promoting a ‘heads up don’t duck’ prevention strategy…That makes them more aware of the mechanism of the injury is so they can avoid it.”
Tator suggested that another factor should be addressed.
“We’ve witnessed, I think, more violence and aggression than there should be,” he said. “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 was in agreement, saying, “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.”