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Hockey teams facing an expensive check

New rule in prep hockey puts teams' playoff eligibility in jeopardy

Dec. 12, 2012

The third strike means you're out, and you're not coming back.

New guidelines in hockey put forth by the National Federation of High Schools have demonstrated the organizing body's earnestness in weeding out head and neck injuries from the game. The moves, coming a year after Minnesota high-school players Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette were paralyzed in separate incidents less than a week apart, have been met with the appropriate understanding and acceptance from local coaches.

But there's a catch, and it's a big one.

NFHS Rule 6-7-2, adopted by the WIAA this year, upped the penalty for a hit from behind to a game disqualification. In previous years, the penalty for such a hit was less severe, but more importantly, the rule now has implications for teams' WIAA playoff eligibility.

According to WIAA precepts, teams that incur three match DQs over the course of the year are disqualified from the postseason. Before now, with disqualifications usually handed out for fighting or other inappropriate behavior, reaching the three-strike count was rare.

Now, at least three teams in the greater Milwaukee area already have two game DQs on their docket months before the playoffs begin Feb. 12, including Waupun, University School and Brookfield. Programs like Arrowhead and Marquette have one.

"The three Game Disqualification penalty rule remains in effect and will be enforced should a WIAA Ice Hockey varsity team be assessed three Game Disqualification penalties for any violation of NFHS rules," said a WIAA release issued Dec. 6. "Checking from behind is a safety regulation that has a highdegree of injury risk to the player being checked. Players that are checked in the back have no control of themselves once the contact occurs rendering them virtually helpless as they accelerate forward, often times head first into the side boards."

The release said a "cultural change" had been requested to eradicate the danger from ice hockey. That cultural change could make for a smaller postseason.

Delicate balance

It's a predicament for hockey coaches. On one hand, they acknowledge the game needs to be altered to prevent these injuries from occurring. On another, they wonder if inconsistency in rule application could come with collateral damage.

"There's going to be a lot of gray area in how that's called," Kettle Moraine/Mukwonago/Oconomowoc coach John Brymer said. "I've heard some officials that have seen tape (of a particular DQ call) say, 'Yes, that was deserving,' and then, 'No, that one wasn't.' There's a mix of views on the rules here. It's going to be a challenge to see consistency throughout the state."

Teams already incurring the severe penalties will have to play very cautiously going forward or risk losing playoff eligibility.

"Our kids were unsure what to do because nobody wants to get the second one," said Arrowhead's Mike Watt, whose team incurred one game DQ in the first game of the season. "Nobody wants to get that second or third one, so then you get kids playing extremely cautious. When you get kids playing cautious, it's just as dangerous.

"Inadvertent things can happen. Hockey is a different game because it is the fastest sport. They're not at running speed; they're at speeds where even incidental contact by accident can cause a catastrophic injury. Even at the slowest speeds, we don't have out of bounds. You've got the boards that are there to take the absorption of the check, and at the same time, it can do harm."

What if scenarios

There are a number of angles that complicate the situation. For one thing, with consequences so grave, it's crucial that officials are giving everyone the same treatment.

"Our ref this weekend told us after the game, and his words were, 'If I wasn't calling it all game, I wasn't calling it at the end,'" said Arrowhead girls hockey coach Jinelle Siergiej. "That's not right. They shouldn't be missing calls just because they've been consistently missing calls."

It's possible for an offensive player to draw a penalty,turning late so his back faces an oncoming opponent, and coaches wonder if that behavior will increase as teams realize how significant apenalty could be for the opponent. Watt also wondered how kids on a disqualified team would react.

"I would like to see a change so if you get a player that has two hits from behind or three hits, they have to serve a suspension," Watt said. "I don't think the rest of the kids that aren't committing those infractions should be punished for it. If they decide they have nothing to play for (after three DQs) and they have dirty play, I don't know how we're going to stop it. There just needs to be clarity for the officials and how they're going to call it. We have to make sure we talk to officials (before a game), because there are inconsistencies within the coaches understanding the rule and referees enforcing the rule and even referees understanding the rule."

Brymer said one idea thrown around by the WIAA in past years has been to literally put a stop sign on the backs of jerseys.

"It's been a hot button for several years," Brymer said. "It's the game, and unfortunately these things you have to do to protect these kids."

Watt, who played in the National Hockey League, said he observed videos and participated in question-and-answer sessions with NHL league officials when rule changes were put in place, and he feels this change warrants a similar approach. Coaches are harping on the rule and emphasizing proper technique in practice, but sometimes that's not enough.

"You have kids developing at different rates and different levels," Watt said. "I might have a freshman that comes in at 200 pounds, and they're trying to catch up to their body and they're playing a high-contact, high-impact sport. Another freshman might be 85, 90 pounds. They may make that push (from behind) and nothing happens, but the bigger kid might make that push inadvertently (and knock a player down)."

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