Minnesota Hockey, the governing body for 40,000 youth hockey players in the state, has voted to continue with the pilot program begun last Janaury that made checking from behind and boarding 5 minute major and 10 minute misconduct penalties. The program was instituted after high school player Jack Jablonski suffered a spinal cord injury from an unpenalized check from behind. The USA Hockey rule book allows for escalating levels of penaly time depending on the incident. That discretion no longer exists in Minnesota in youth or high school hockey.
An Ad Hoc committee had been formed to study the issue and make a recommendation to the board for its summer meeting. The committee had recommended that the pilot program be discontinued and a much stonger emphasis placed on officiails strictly following to the rule book. The district directors persuaded the board to reject the committee's recommendation and continue the program for another year. The reasoning: they had not had enough time to evaluate the rule change, and, frankly, because the board feared it would be criticized in the press. Although the intention is to conduct a review again in another year, it is hard to imagine that the press or popular opinion will allow for a return to the rule book as written.
Both sides express a desire to make the game safer. The committee suggested that the game needed to be played within the rule book. The directors agreed, but thought stiffer penalties were the answer to the problem. The directors are hopeful for more compliance on the part of officials and coaches, but have no plan or mechanism in place to change the behaviors. The committee offered several suggestions and details about how to educate, inform and supervise the progress; however it is unlikely many of these will actually be enacted. And these are only two of the several kinds of on-ice hits that are dangerous, and no thought has been given to head contact (concussions) or charging. Arguably, head contact is the most dangerous play, as it is also the most frequent and accounts for the largest number of serious injuries in youth and high school hockey.
Perhaps the rule book needs to be revised in such a way that everybody is clear what is allowed and what is not. Currently that is not the reality at any level of hockey, from the NHL all the way down to the lowest levels.
It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the coming year.