Rules change in high school hockey to minimize risks

MOORHEAD -- Moorhead boys hockey coach Peter Cullen remembers a clean check sending his head into the boards. And he'll never forget how thankful he is to remember it.

MOORHEAD -- Moorhead boys hockey coach Peter Cullen remembers a clean check sending his head into the boards. And he'll never forget how thankful he is to remember it.

"It was probably around 1997," Cullen said. "I remember getting hit, and thankfully I can remember it. I didn't get hit all that hard, but it knocked me off my feet and I hit my head off the boards. I was told it was a slight concussion. I felt like I was always leaning right or left and I was going to tip over. There's just an off feeling that you have and a lack of concentration.

"The check on me was clean, but I hit my head on the boards. You just never know when a slight concussion comes. I was out for a day and went back to work the next day, but that's only because they don't have the tests they have now."

A memory Cullen doesn't enjoy having is the sight of his 10-year-old son rocking back and forth with his hands over his ears in the principal's office after complaining of headaches.

"He had a little bit of a concussion," Cullen said. "You could tell the noise and maybe the lights were hurting him. He just needed to be somewhere quiet. His concussion wasn't extreme, but it's pretty debilitating."


Concussions hit home for Cullen. He's seen and experienced what a check can do.

Checks from behind are precisely what the National Federation of State High School Associations hopes to curb from the game of hockey.

In an effort to promote safer play and minimize the risk of injury, the NFHS ice hockey rules committee approved changes that strengthen the language for checking from behind and the penalties that go along with it.

The revised rules were approved in May, and metro area teams are for the first time playing games under the new interpretations which are:

"No player shall push, charge, cross-check or body-check an opponent from behind on open ice."

A hit from behind into the boards or goal frame is a flagrant violation and results in a five-minute major penalty and disqualification from the game.

"There is no need for any hitting from behind in the game of hockey," Fargo North boys hockey coach Rob Aasand said. "If you see the opponent's numbers, you should be slowing up and going from a different angle and not directly from behind."

An open-ice hit still results in a two-minute minor penalty and a 10-minute game misconduct.


The need to change

The revised language interpretation of checks from behind was inspired by an incident that occurred on Dec. 30, 2011, in Minnesota.

On that night, Benilde St. Margaret's Jack Jablonski took a check from behind. The hit left Jablonski paralyzed. From tragedy came education, as the Minnesota State High School League produced a video to display proper checking technique to go along with the new language of the checking-from-behind penalties.

"There's a lot of referee discretion," said C.J. Beaurline, who serves on the NFHS ice hockey committee as a representative from Minnesota.

Beaurline has been a hockey referee for 18 years and is in the checking demonstrational video featured on the MSHSL website.

"What a referee is looking for is no cross-check, elbow, charge or trip in any manner that involves a player going violently into the boards," Beaurline said. "A clean check is rubbing a player out on the boards with a shoulder that takes the player off the puck. If the player goes flying into the boards, it is a judgment call."

Communication is key

Though the level of player contact is limited in girls hockey, Fargo North head coach Kris Dougherty said he has had dialogue with his players on the new rule.


"From the girls standpoint, it isn't as big of an issue as it is with the full-contact game in the boys game," Dougherty said. "It is something we definitely talk about on a daily basis.

"We talk about protecting ourselves and putting your body in the right position. Those injuries do happen, and for some reason more so now than they did 10-15 years ago."

Moorhead girls coach Kaylee Black remembers flying toward a puck versus Marian University while playing on Concordia's hockey team. A defending player was going for that same puck and she wasn't about to slow down for her.

"One player is going to get the contact," Black said. "I was the bigger kid, so I just prepared myself for contact, she fell and got hurt and it looks bad on me. You never have the mentality that you're going to crush a girl, you're just going for the puck. Possession always overrides position."

Communication is key when it comes to a rule, which has many different aspects to it.

"We encourage the referees to do the talking to the players and coaches," Beaurline said. "The kids need to know the guys policing are nearby, so get those elbows and sticks down. To try to make the game safer, communication on the rink is vital, not only for coaches, but for referees."

Proper technique is something Fargo South boys hockey coach Wade Storey said is vital in reducing the number of illegal hits.

"That is part of the whole solution process" Storey said. "The first being educating players on the proper techniques, so they don't have to put themselves in the position to either hit or get hit. You don't want to be on either end of it ... When most of those kinds of hits happen it is because players are out of position to begin with."


Less physical play

The new rule stands to impact the game and not only from a safety-concern perspective.

Fargo North all-state junior forward Jackson Graalum said he anticipates games this season to be slightly less physical.

"I think when players are going in for a hit, they won't be as aggressive if their backs are turned," Graalum said. "It may affect how hard we go, but we are still going to do the best we can to take the body on them."

Teammate Michael Gunderson agrees that games may be less physical, but said the new rule is good for the game.

"You are going to have to be more aware of where you are when you go into the corners," Gunderson said. "It's more about being smart and keeping your head up."

The high-price penalties for physical hits may steer players from going for legal checks all together at certain points in the game on the chance that it may be interpreted as an illegal infraction.

"There may be some times when a player will just have to lay off a check," Fargo Davies boys head coach Brian Davidson said.


West Fargo boys co-head coach Troy Miller said he and other coaches have been stressing the education aspect with players so there are no surprises during the season.

"We have mentioned it every day," Miller said. "Especially this year because whenever there is a point of emphasis officials may tend to go over and above in calling those penalties. ... They are basically advising officials to protect the players and if it is close call it."

What To Read Next
Get Local