Youth hockey: too hard-hitting and dangerous?

Derek Boogaard's death from a drug and alcohol overdose combined with a rash of concussions has raised questions about what level of hitting should be acceptable in NHL hockey.

Now, similar questions are being asked about youth hockey following a paralyzing hit during a local high school game last Friday.

Jack Jablonski, a 16-year-old sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret's School, had his spinal cord severed at the neck and two vertebrae fractured when he was checked headfirst into the boards. He has reportedly regained slight movement in his right arm and shoulders, but still cannot move his legs. Spinal fusion surgery will likely be performed this week, but Jablonski's long-term outlook won't be clear for months.

Such hits, malicious or not, are a common part of hockey. When the puck flies behind the net and skaters from opposing teams pursue it, checking and pinning an opponent into the boards to gain control of the puck is a standard move. But when the player getting checked loses his balance, it is all too easy for them to be catapulted head-first into the boards.

In fact, a play along these lines led to a scary injury for the Minnesota Wild's Jared Spurgeon just over a week ago.

With regard to these from-behind hits, the Star Tribune's Jeremy Olson reports that injury risk is so high that youth hockey jerseys now have "STOP" signs on the back to remind players not to hit from behind. USA Hockey has already banned checking for the youngest players, but this year extended that ban to players ages 11 and 12.

But checking is allowed once players hit their teenage years, and the line between legal and illegal hits is a grey one. In this case of the hit that injured Jablonski, the hitting player got a two-minute penalty for boarding and was disqualified from the rest of the game, reportedly because the play resulted in injury. But boarding calls involve an enormous amount of judgment and interpretation by referees, and given that all parties agreed there was no maliciousness involved in the hit that injured Jablonski, it's questionable whether the play would've even been penalized had injury not resulted.

Jablonski's injury is another black eye for a locally revered sport that has received a remarkable amount of negative publicity in recent years as brain injuries become better understood. Will Jablonski's injury result in rule changes meant to curtail the amount of hitting in youth hockey, or do those who strap on skates and grab sticks no matter their age need to accept the risk and understand that serious injuries may result?

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