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After tragic teen hockey injuries, can a rough sport become safer?

Two tragic spine injuries in Minnesota high school hockey games in the last month have sparked debate among parents, officials, and fans over how the rough sport can be made safer.

On Dec. 30, 16-year-old high school sophomore Jack Jablonski’s spine was severely damaged at the neck when he was checked twice from behind in a junior varsity game and crashed headfirst into the boards of the rink. After surgery to repair two vertebrae in his neck, the teen has begun rehabilitation, but his doctors don’t expect him to walk again.

Then, on January 6, high school senior Jenna Privette’s spine was injured when she fell either after crashing into the boards on her own or after having been slammed into them by an opposing player. Officials and family members are in vehement disagreement on the cause of the 18-year-old’s injury. It’s unclear whether Privette will recover. 

The Minnesota State High School League acted quickly announcing tougher penalties for three types of infractions that increase the risk of spine injuries: checking from behind, boarding, and contact to the head.

In the boys’ games, for example, the penalty for checking from behind increased to a mandatory 5-minute major penalty, plus a 10-minute misconduct.

However, prevention of these kinds of injuries will take a major effort from everyone involved in youth hockey -- from the leagues and officials, to coaches, parents and players themselves, experts say. It will take a combination of stricter rules, better conditioning, smarter playing techniques – and maybe an overhaul of hockey culture itself.

In the wake of Jablonski's devastating injury, his family has started an effort called “Jack’s Pledge,” which includes a Youtube video of high school hockey players pledging to play more safely.

While the tougher rules will only impact boys’ hockey -- checking has always been against the rules in the girls’ game – they can help protect young players, said 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.

“We’ve shown that these injuries are preventable,” Tator said. “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.”

But rules changes are ineffective unless they’re enforced, said 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. 

Officials, youth coaches, parents and players have to oppose overly aggressive behavior. “I know coaches who will pull players aside and tell them, ‘this is not what our team represents,’” or who sit out players for violent play even when they haven’t received a penalty, Stuart said.

Better conditioning, such as exercises to improve neck muscle strength, can also help prevent spine injuries in young players.

“The average kid who breaks his neck is about 17-years-old,” Tator said.  “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.”

Players can also be taught better techniques for both receiving and doling out checks, Stuart said. The Mayo clinic specialist has been spearheading programs at USA Hockey to help combat both head and spine injuries.

While the intrinsic roughness of the game makes it more risky to kids’ spines -- as does football -- there are ways to help kids play safer.

One of the biggest issues is how players react when they’re about to crash into the boards, Stuart said. Their tendency is to put their heads down and that can lead to a spine injury.

More from The Star Tribune on the injured hockey players

“That’s why we started promoting a ‘heads up don’t duck’ prevention strategy,” Stuart said. “That makes them more aware of the mechanism of the injury is so they can avoid it.”

But rules changes, muscle strengthening and better playing technique won’t solve everything.

“We’ve witnessed, I think, more violence and aggression than there should be,” Tator explained. “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 agreed. “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,” he said.

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