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New rules stress safety in high school hockey

Conner Valesano received a quick introduction to the Minnesota State High School League's new rules regarding dangerous hits.

Near the end of a Jan. 17 game against Apple Valley, the Duluth East junior was given a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for illegal contact to an opponent's head.

That came three days after the MSHSL issued a decree that stiffer penalties would be mandatory for three infractions -- checking from behind, boarding and head contact -- and might include game disqualifications, which would mean missing the following contest as well.

That fate befell Valesano, a second-line center, who sat out the ensuing Hockey Day Minnesota clash against Minnetonka in a battle between the top two-ranked Class AA teams. Valesano says his stick slid up the opponent's stick and struck the player's facemask, which likely would have resulted in a two-minute high-sticking penalty a week earlier.

"We were informed about the new penalties before the game, but I was surprised I was called for the major and the DQ," Valesano said. "It's good that not as many players will get hurt, but on the other hand if you take a penalty like that the game can turn around right away with a five-minute power play."

The midseason change is in response to a paralyzing injury suffered by Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore Jack Jablonski during a junior varsity game Dec. 30. The MSHSL instituted automatic five-minute majors for the above infractions (a 10-minute misconduct for checking from behind has not changed), with officials having the option to assess game disqualifications for flagrant offenses. It's a first step in making the game safer and changing the culture of high school hockey.

"There's no question what happened recently brought everyone together," MSHSL associate director Craig Perry said. "Our coaches association said, 'We have to do something; what should be the first step?' And, unprecedentedly, we were able to change the penalty structure within the season. The next step is ongoing education."

That includes an instructional video placed on the MSHSL website Friday that players and coaches must view as a group by the end of this week.

Players, coaches and referees interviewed are unanimous in their belief that making the sport safer is an idea long overdue, but some question whether penalties are too harsh and whether enforcement will be meted out fairly.

"Those who say that these changes can have a positive effect are correct," referee Brett Klosowski said. "It's just a matter of whether or not the implementation -- doing it at the moment and the way they did it -- will have the desired effect. It may or it may not. In the end, we all want the game to be as safe as possible."

While conscious of the threat of debilitating injuries, Hermantown's Bruce Plante, coach of Class A's top-ranked team, hopes checking isn't being legislated out of the game.

"It's hard to be outspoken about this because it makes you look bad, like you don't care about safety," he said. "I do care about safety, and we teach our players to do the right things. But I don't want it to become a noncontact sport."

Plante says dangerous hits were not a huge problem in the Northland before the crackdown, and he now sees players pulling up before checking others along the boards.

Valesano agrees: "We're a lot more tentative to hit. We don't want to take more penalties because we can't afford to have more people missing for each game. It really does change (how you play the game)."

That's the scenario the MSHSL envisioned.

"This is a unified approach to change the culture and return to skill play and away from dangerous play. That goal is being supported by all factions," said Perry, who has a son who plays on the Andover varsity. "I'm seeing the game change. I'm seeing kids play with more intellect, I'm seeing the calls being made, I'm seeing coaches accept it and I'm seeing the fans understand that's the way it should be played. In the first couple of weeks since we first made the change, we've had overwhelmingly positive (feedback)."

Minnesota Hockey, the governing body of youth hockey around the state, adopted a similar approach last week, and Perry plans on attending a USA Hockey rules meeting this spring asking to make this experimental rule permanent.

Coaches are on board with the philosophy of safety as the No. 1 priority.

"I think it's good that the State High School League has stepped up and made everybody aware to teach proper checking and follow the rules," Duluth East coach Mike Randolph said. "The emphasis is it's going to be a severe penalty to your team and to you individually if you get DQ'd. But it's going to take some time to get through it. They will iron out some things as they go along, but I'm glad they are moving in that direction because there is no call for penalties like that."

Still, Randolph is among those who believe these types of penalties haven't been called consistently in the past. Grand Rapids coach Bruce LaRoque hopes this marks a chance for officials to make consistent calls.

"It's good that they are bringing in these tougher rules and re-emphasizing some of the rules already on the books," LaRoque said. "There's been a lot of room for interpretation, but maybe (state officials) are closing down that interpretation and giving refs the opportunity to make the right call. Kids and coaches have to learn from it. The biggest thing is getting consistency across the board, and, hopefully, with these stricter rules, there's less gray area. Inconsistency always has been a problem."

Plante says referees are in a tough situation, especially since they're in the spotlight more now.

"They don't have an out; they almost have to call a five-minute major on anything that happens," he said. "The thing I don't like about it is if (officials) call it flagrant, you get kicked out that game and the next game. That's really stiff."

Klosowski, who officiates at the college and juniors level but has not yet refereed a Minnesota high school league game since the change, is curious to see how officials handle calls.

"Anytime you remove options from officials, you can have one of two outcomes," he said. "One outcome is if officials are comfortable with the backing they receive from the high school league, then they will go out and make those calls and you will see a definitive and immediate change. The other possibility is that officials are human beings and they understand a five-minute major can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of a game. There's a possibility it will cause officials to weaken their calls or change calls to avoid having to call five-minute majors."

Either way, Plante says he isn't convinced the human element can be taken out of it.

"I don't trust the refs that well," he said. "If somebody wants to get Hermantown or get me, he can DQ one of our kids. Even if there is a check from behind, 95 times out of 100 it's accidental and not intentional. Plus, players turn their backs all the time -- especially the more cowardly players -- and take that check from behind. Is the ref going to see that he turned his back on him or will he call it a five and a 10 and flagrant? I don't trust how the refs will interpret it."

In addition, Plante says the MSHSL encourages coaches to inform on officials who are not calling penalties correctly.

"I've had two refs tell me, 'If I don't call (a penalty), then you are going to tell the (MSHSL) I didn't call it. Then I'm on the hot seat,'" Plante said. "The refs are feeling the pressure."

Conversely, Klosowski says the practice of using coaches' influence on selecting officials for playoff games negatively affects the process.

"Coaches around the state, particularly in our area, have a tremendous amount of influence in who gets selected to work playoff games," he said. "As long as that dynamic is in play, it will always affect certain officials in terms of what they choose to call or not to call. Until the high school league evolves itself at a level where that no longer is the situation, certain officials' calls will be affected. And that's unfortunate. Coaches should have input -- but never influence -- on who works playoff games."

Like others, however, Klosowski is in agreement with the MSHSL's long-range goal and is sorry it took an accident such as Jablonski's to bring about such change.

"In the end, this negative will result in a much better positive," he said. "It's a tragic negative to have to have that change occur, but I believe in five years we will see a far more skilled game and a far less dangerous game. And that's a good thing."

Perry is adamant that will be the end result.

"We know these situations will still happen, but we're hopeful we can reduce the numbers (of dangerous hits) and we're hopeful that, eventually, we're not having a conversation about checking from behind or contact to the head or boarding," he said. "A stiffer penalty structure holds the student-athlete more accountable for his behavior on the ice, and long-term you teach the right way."