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NDHSAA checks policy on checking in hockey

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota High School Activities Association officials are examining whether they should follow Minnesota in implementing tougher penalties for illegal checks during hockey games.

Late Saturday, the Minnesota State High School League announced changes to the penalties for boarding, checking from behind, as well as contact to the head, in response to a Dec. 30 injury that left Jack Jablonski, 16, paralyzed.

Doctors do not believe the junior varsity player from Benilde-St. Margaret's school in St. Louis Park will ever walk again after being checked from behind during a game against Wayzata.

Matt Fetsch, assistant to the executive secretary at the NDHSAA, said surveys will be sent today to coaches, officials and administrators in an effort to learn more about the issue in North Dakota.

"We haven't had a major outcry for any one thing," Fetsch said. "That's why we're going through the process and gathering more data. We're going to get some input and information and go from there."

Under the new experimental changes implemented at the MSHSL, checking from behind will be a 5-minute major penalty instead of a 2-minute minor penalty.

Boarding, resulting from any action that sends an opponent "violently into the board," will be an automatic 5-minute major. Previously, it could be either called a 2-minute or 5-minute penalty at the discretion of the official.

The same is true for contact to the head, now a 5-minute major after being an optional 2- or 5-minute penalty before the change.

All three penalties have the option of a game disqualification for a severe infraction, which includes a suspension for the following game as well.

Uniform rules are set nationally by the National Federation of State High School Associations. The MSHSL had to get permission from the national body to make the changes, which will run through the remainder of the season.

North Dakota's penalties for the infractions are the same as Minnesota's before the change.

Fetsch said the NDHSAA is requesting data on how many of those penalties have been called and opinions from coaches and officials.

Data on the number of penalties that result in ejections are available now. According to Fetsch, there have been four ejections for checking from behind this season in North Dakota, including one in girls hockey, where checking is not allowed.

There has also been one ejection for boarding in a girls' game, but none in boys' games.

Fetsch said the NDHSAA board meets on Jan. 28 and will report its findings at that time and from there determine whether it thinks changes are necessary.

Tony Bina, who serves on the state's hockey advisory committee, said the issues of boarding and checking from behind have been discussed for years without changes to the penalty structure.

But the NDHSAA has put an extra emphasis on the contact to the head, he said. The last two seasons it has been a standalone penalty, instead of just a penalty that accompanied a roughing or elbowing call.

"With the concussion era we're going through, there are a lot of examples of serious injuries that are developed from those hits," he said. "The emphasis is a good thing. There's no reason for players to make contact with the head. I do support the emphasis they're putting on those penalties. It's definitely sending a message. Maybe this is the route we'll have to take to re-emphasize the checking from behind."

But Bina, who has been a head high school hockey coach for 10 seasons, the last seven at Grand Forks Central, doesn't necessarily have a strong opinion about whether North Dakota should follow Minnesota's approach.

"I think the referees have been educated on the situation, especially the check from behind," Bina said. "I don't know if a stiffer penalty will do it or if we need to talk to the kids more often and just educate them on making good decisions. It's a fast game and you have to make split-second decisions but those decisions can have a huge impact."

An official with experience in both high school and college hockey who asked not to be named said greater penalties will work as a deterrent but in the end, it's the player's responsibility.

"It's up to the player to respect the opponent and not check them from behind or take head shots," he said.

He said he didn't feel that North Dakota had an issue but admitted Minnesota high school hockey is a much larger organization with more than 9,300 participants.

"At the high school level, you only play so many games so the type of penalty that results in a game disqualification, that's going to affect your team a lot more," he said.

Locally, checking is not allowed in youth hockey from the Termite level to the Pee Wee level. Termites start at age 5 and Pee Wee level concludes at age 12.

Bill Palmiscino, superintendent of parks and recreation, said Grand Forks youth teams are part of the North Dakota Amateur Hockey Association, which follows the rules and standards of USA Hockey.

"In Pee Wee hockey, they allow a little bit of contact but not checking," he said. "You're taught to ride a player off the puck but not check them."

He said this is the first season checking has not been allowed at the Pee Wee level and he feels coaches have done a good job of teaching proper and legal checking techniques to players.

Coaches must complete a six-hour online modular course then meet with a coaching coordinator.

"They talk about how to teach it and what to tell their kids not to do," Palmiscino said. "If you see the numbers on the back, do not check. Parents also have to take an interest in this and talk to their own kids."

Because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday, no one from the NFSHSA could be reached for comment.

The deadline to make an ice hockey rule change proposal to the NFSHSA is March 6.

Bieri is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.