GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - There are few sports so thrilling as hockey, and few states that love it so much as Minnesota. The sport has a special place in our hearts, but now it is also on our minds.
First it was the death of Minnesota Wild player Derek Boogaard in spring of 2011, whose autopsy revealed significant brain damage, which officials believe was likely the result of countless concussions. Then, in the fall of 2011, several other Wild players were benched with concussions, as were numerous other players across the National Hockey League.
Soon after, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby said he would be out indefinitely, as he still was suffering from a serious head and neck injury from a year ago.
In December of 2011, Minnesota high school hockey players Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette both suffered spinal cord injuries, leading many to question where hockey is just too rough.
"Players are bigger, and faster, and stronger, and there may be more contact or collisions that are leading to an increased risk," explained Dr. Michael Stuart, Co-director of Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, is also Chief Medical Officer for USA Hockey, a physician for the men's U.S. hockey team, a consultant for the NHL, and has three sons who are professional players.
The danger is greater, says Dr. Stuart, for several reasons: one, he says, is that while the game has gotten quicker and more physical, the rink size has stayed the same. Dr. Stuart also says today's state of the art pads and helmets may make players overconfident they can't be hurt. But when they are, it's often a blow to the head.
The Minnesota Department of Health says a thousand athletes under age 19 are hospitalized in our state with concussions every year. Hundreds of others are never reported.
"I think it's bad that it takes something like this, someone getting hurt. But I think it's good that everyone's attention was finally brought to it," said Sam Kotonias, an Eden Prairie Bantam player.
The Minnesota State High School League is just one group that took notice. It now has a 12-minute video to show kids how to safely check and hit on the ice. It also wrote tougher hockey rules, so that checks from behind, boarding and head contact all mean major penalties. And, a Minnesota state law requires all coaches to have concussion training, a law that also says a health care provider has to sign off before a player with a concussion can return to the game.
"When we have those episodes where there's a head injury, we get them evaluated, we get the proper people...and make sure that when they come back (to the game) they're ready to come back," described Craig Perry of the MSHSL.
Coaches like Shjon Podein think the new rules are good rules, saying it will shift the game's focus from contact to skill. And, at the same time, it will keep kids safer.
"We all have got to be on board that this is now a non-gray area for these kids, ages 14-18, to make the decisions. And, we'll tell them what's right or wrong and we're all on board that this is the way to do it," explained Podein.
Podein, a former NHL star whose own kids now skate, says there are no excuses for dangerous hits.
"We don't say, 'Oh, he didn't try,' no, it's five minutes for a hit from behind. No matter how it is, it's black and white, it's a five and a ten; if the kid's hurt, you're gone (from the game)," added Podein.
But experts say that's not enough. They argue that youth sports are more intense than ever---and so is the pressure to win. So truly making kids safer, they say, takes changing not just the rules, but the culture of the game itself.
"That means coaches players and parents supporting officials who are responsible for calling those penalties," added Dr. Stuart.
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