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Hockey-safety summit message needs to reach State Tournament players

It will fall to the next generation of parents and coaches to change a hockey culture that glorifies big hits and brutality while dismissing safety measures as attempts to neuter or “sissify” the game.

A formidable task has to begin somewhere. Unfortunately, the Herb Brooks Foundation chose the wrong place for its Player Safety Summit on Thursday morning.

They were only off by a few hundred yards.

For more than two hours, some of the smartest and most passionate minds at every level of hockey kicked around ways to reverse a misguided mentality that makes the game more dangerous and less fun for kids.

Thirteen speakers — from 1980 Olympic gold medalist Rob McClanahan to Minnesota High School League executive director David Stead — supported greater emphasis on skill, speed and controlled contact beginning in youth hockey, while eliminating thuggery, intimidation and cheap shots.

That message belonged not in a function room at the River Centre, but down the hall and across the lobby at the Xcel Energy Center, where thousands of spectators massed for the first game of the Class 2A state boys’ hockey quarterfinals.

More than anyone else, the players taking the ice this weekend needed to hear this. With a few exceptions, the state tournament is the pinnacle of their playing careers.

Soon they will grow up, introduce their own kids to hockey, and coach them. It will fall to them, the next generation of parents and coaches, to change a hockey culture that glorifies big hits and brutality while dismissing safety measures as attempts to neuter or “sissify” the game.

“It’s like moving a mountain of sand one grain at a time,” said Dave Margenau, the president of Minnesota Hockey.

Most of the people in that room Thursday grew up in Minnesota. They love hockey. Many, like University of Minnesota coach Don Lucia, recounted memories of playing in the state tournament.

But they know what they see, and they don’t like where hockey is going.

It starts with a lack of respect for coaches, officials and other players, especially by maniacal parents who don’t know the game and envision their little Tommy as a future NHLer.

Tim Morris, the executive director of the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association, spoke of an email he received from a parent seeking to fire a high school coach, in part because the team spent too much time practicing stick-handling, shooting and skill development. More than one person gasped.

Coaches who emphasize intimidation over skills hurt the cause. Lucia recounted the time one of his sons tried out for a pee wee team and was told they needed more “toughness” on the third line, which Lucia found ridiculous for a team of 12-year olds. “At the youngest levels, it shouldn’t be all about winning,” Lucia said. “It should be about learning skills and enjoying the game.”

Player agent Neil Sheehy, the former NHL defenseman from International Falls, told his own story about perceived toughness. Sheehy supports the new USA Hockey initiative that requires teaching checking to pee wees (ages 11 and12) while delaying checking in games until bantams (ages 13 and 14).

USA Hockey found that smaller pee wees were so afraid of being hammered by larger pee wees that it retarded their skill development. Plus, few coaches taught checking properly. By definition, checking means separating the puck from the puck-carrier, not slamming a defenseless kid into the glass four strides behind the play.

As a freshman at Harvard, Sheehy said he concentrated on physical play, thinking that would get him to the NHL. The legendary Crimson Coach Bill Cleary, the two-time Olympian and a gold medalist in 1960, told him he needed to skate and shoot more, because that was the only way he and the team could improve. “Bill said, `I know you’re tough. You don’t need to show it to me,’ ” Sheehy said. “ ‘By skating and developing skill, that will get you to the National Hockey League.’ It was true.”

That’s what hockey needs to get back to.

Incredibly, even after paralyzing injuries to Jake Jablonski of Benilde-St. Margaret and Jenna Privette of St. Croix Lutheran, there are still people in this state who think the Minnesota State High School League overreacted by requiring officials to call five-minute major penalties on all checking from behind. (Privette is expected to recover, but Jablonski probably won’t walk again.)  

That’s misguided. Players at all levels are bigger and stronger than ever, and too many can’t control their sticks and never were taught how to use their body to angle an opponent off the puck.

Safety has been a USA Hockey concern for years, long before these poor kids were hurt, and it’s shameful that it took those injuries to draw more people into the discussion. Jablonski’s father, Mike, was on the panel, and half the TV crews packed up shortly after he finished his remarks.

It all starts with the right emphasis at the youngest ages. As Skip Prince, commissioner of the U.S. Hockey League, put it, “It’s easier to train a colt than to train a horse.”

If the hockey community handles this right, by the time those colts are old enough to play at the X, we won’t need more summits and discussions like this. Now the education begins, one grain at a time.

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