Enterprise: Hits, heads, heartache

Alex SchmitzFaribault Daily News photo: This enterprise story — which focused on the changes made to violent penalties in Minnesota hockey, the long-term effects of the hits and one local boy’s scare of a lifetime — appeared in the June 8, 2012, edition of the Faribault Daily News.

  • This piece won second place sports story (dailies under 10,000) at the 2012 MNA Awards and second place enterprise story (dailies under 20,000) at the 2012 AP Sports Awards.

By JOSH BERHOW

Alex Schmitz remembers only pieces of Valentine’s Day 2010.

He remembers hovering in the crease during the end of an inter-squad hockey scrimmage, leaving it to play a puck in the corner and then hitting the ice seconds later when a teammate lost an edge and collided into his back.

Then nothing. Motionless. Fear.

He lay helpless as his bulky goalie pads were sliced off and later as his freezing hair was cut to separate it from the ice.

He remembers the cool breeze — wafting into an uneasy feeling of uncertainty — under the swirling blades of the helicopter, which was taking him to North Memorial Hospital for what would be diagnosed as a brain and spinal concussion.

Alex Schmitz, however, was lucky. His story would have a happy ending. Two years later he is far removed from what seemed like a life-changing injury. Miraculously, after being placed in intensive care for two days, his total stay in the hospital was less than a week long.

“The first night after the testing and CAT scans, everything was flowing,” said Rick Schmitz, Alex’s dad. “There wasn’t any major damage they could see, so we were pretty optimistic all along that it was a time thing, not a permanent thing.”

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The Schmitz family may not have known it at the time, but what happened to Alex was a glimpse at an issue that would take center stage just a couple of years later as moves were made to make hockey safer.

When the Minnesota State High School League and Minnesota Hockey stiffened the penalties on hockey’s most dangerous infractions — spurred by the sudden and tragic injuries of a couple of high school players — the sport was forced to adapt quickly. But as safety becomes more of an ongoing concern it seems the modifications were inevitable. Hockey is changing — a MSHSL study showed checking from behind calls increased 90 percent after the rules changes — and the officials, coaches and players were forced to change with it.

But a few months removed from the end of the season, and with post-rule change statistics just becoming available, there is still one glaring question: Is high school hockey headed in the right direction?

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“I just think we got it all whacked,” said Tom Ward, the director of boys hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. “We missed the boat on checking in our game and now we had this knee-jerk reaction. It’s baloney to me. We need, as this generation of hockey, to learn how to play the game — shooting, angling, checking, keeping their mouth shut and respecting the game. It’s not the kids’ fault, it’s our fault.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations approved the MSHSL’s requested changes to boarding, checking from behind and contact to the head two weeks after Benilde-St. Margaret’s sophomore Jack Jablonski was paralyzed when a hit from behind sent him headfirst into the boards in a junior varsity game against Wayzata.

Shortly after the MSHSL changed the three penalties to automatic five-minute majors, Minnesota Hockey made similar changes, although it did not increase the penalty for contact to the head.

In a study of all varsity high school league games the MSHSL conducted at the end of this season — although statistics from the games surrounding the changes are unreliable — checking from behind calls increased 90 percent after Jan. 14 when they were put into action. Boarding calls increased 26 percent and contact to the head calls increased 3 percent.

“Essentially, the numbers show as we thought,” said MSHSL Associate Director Craig Perry, referring to the checking from behind increase. “I don’t think we doubled the number of penalties. There was an increase of creating awareness of how we call the penalties.”

Minnesota Hockey did not show such a dramatic change. Of the 168 checking from behind calls made in all Minnesota Hockey-affiliated games last season, 63 (38 percent) were made in the final two months — roughly a third of the season — after the rules were put into effect on Jan. 25.

Similar numbers represent boarding calls. Forty-six were called before the change, and 21 were called after.

When comparing all of the penalties of Minnesota Hockey-affiliated games from the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, there’s almost no change. Checking from behind was called 160 times in the 2010-11 season and 168 times last season. Boarding was called 58 times two years ago and 67 times last season.

“In one regard (the changes) were good,” said Ryan Swafford, the head clinician for the Southern Minnesota Hockey Officials Association and the Minnesota Hockey District 9 Supervisor. “I don’t think anybody wants anyone to get hurt. That’s the bottom line. However, with stricter rules, it’s a broader problem than just more penalty minutes. We as officials, all we do is react; we are not playing the game. Players are playing and coaches are coaching.”

Swafford said officials can only control so much. He gives an example of a Big 9 Conference game shortly after the rules changes were applied. One skater tried to maneuver around the goalie, but when the skater wasn’t able to and they collided, Swafford called goalie interference.

“One coach was lobbying, saying ‘What is my player supposed to do?’” Swafford said. “The other coach wants to talk about why it isn’t a five-minute and a game misconduct for contact to the head. One doesn’t want anything, and the other wants a five and a game for head contact.

“You run into adjudication process.”

**********

“We had a little incident at the rink; Alex got hurt,” is what Rick Schmitz remembers then-Faribault boys hockey coach Brad Ryan calling and telling him the night of Feb. 14, 2010. “Maybe you want to stop down there.”

Rick was at the Faribault Ice Arena minutes later. Soon an ambulance was on the scene, and it wasn’t long until an airlift was called and landed in the back parking lot by the Zamboni door.

After his gear was cut off and his hair snipped from the ice, Alex Schmitz was put onto a stretcher and loaded into the helicopter. His dad wasn’t allowed inside, and soon Alex disappeared into the dark blue sky. Solitude was his passenger.

**********

The Jablonski injury may have helped nudge the masses to call for stricter rules, but some believe the rules changes were just a few years away anyway. Others disagree.

“I don’t think it was coming either way,” said Ken Pauly, the head boys hockey coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s. “I do think, in order to do the things we need to do, sadly, we need to be shocked into recognition.”

When the MSHSL Board of Directors met on Jan. 10 for its monthly meeting, the injuries to Jablonski and Jenna Privette, a St. Croix Lutheran student who suffered a spinal cord injury that left her legs temporarily paralyzed due to an apparent check from behind in a game one week after Jablonski’s incident, were far from out of the public’s watchful eye.

Perry said safety “had been a major point of emphasis for a number of years,” and with the recent string of tragic events everyone in the room brainstormed about possible solutions.

After the decision was made to stiffen the most dangerous infractions, the MSHSL received immediate experimental status from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The MSHSL then tracked the post-change penalties and presented the numbers to the NFSHSA in April and requested the tweaks to checking from behind and boarding stick permanently. (Perry said the league wants to make adjustments to contact to the head penalties.)

The federation told the league it wanted to see more data, so it told the MSHSL to apply for experimental status and use the rules again for the 2012-13 season to get a more accurate reading of the penalties.

With half a season already played under these rules and with a whole offseason to reiterate them, Perry thinks the number of dangerous penalties will decrease next season.

“If we continue to reduce it and make them points of emphasis we will see the change we know we want,” he said.

**********

When a spine suffers an injury, it shuts off until it heals – if it ever does heal.

Doctors told the Schmitz family they were optimistic regarding Alex’s recovery. But optimism is no prophecy. They had to wait it out.

Alex was in intensive care for two days, but within eight hours he had feeling in his hands again. Twenty-two hours later he had feeling in his legs, and it wasn’t long until a nurse tried to get Alex to stand and walk around. He declined.

“I don’t think I can stand up yet,” he said.

On the third day, he sat up in bed, gingerly moved his legs across his body and slowly came to his feet. He felt dizzy at first but eventually used the bed to hold him up. After making progress near the bed, he used railings in the bathroom to steady his body and later was walking in the hallway. He started physical therapy on the fourth day and left the hospital a few days later.

When Jablonski was injured on Dec. 30, and in the following days when his story spread around the state, Rick Schmitz’s memory was jolted.

“Alex is pretty lucky — it could have been a lot worse,” Rick said. “I kind of thought that all along, but (when Jack was hurt) it did bring me back to that day he was laying on the ice.”

**********

After the MSHSL received immediate experimental status, coaches received an email with a link to a video explaining the changes and were encouraged to share it with parents and players. The rules changes might have been the MSHSL’s biggest in-season shake-up in its history.

“It was unprecedented from the MSHSL standpoint,” Swafford said. “I don’t think they ever did a midseason change like this before. It was hard to implement just because of the timing of the change.”

Players also had to adapt on the fly.

“I see why they are changing the rules, but at the same time hockey is such a fast sport and a contact sport you sometimes can’t slow up in time,” said Danny Pierce, a junior on the Faribault boys hockey team last season. “If a guy turns his back at the last minute, you do all you can but sometimes you can’t slow up enough. But they are trying to protect everyone, and I see why.”

“When you are out there skating, you’re not really thinking about it,” said Blake Langerud, a fellow junior on the Faribault boys hockey team last year. “You’re not looking to hurt someone, but you are looking to play physical.”

Faribault assistant coach Chris Storey said referees came into the locker rooms quite a few times before games last season to talk to the players about what they would be looking for when calling checking from behind. Storey said he and the rest of the Faribault coaches used practices to reemphasize the use of hands to direct a player.

“It’s something that’s going to be up to each kid to do the right way,” Storey said. “You are going to see penalties still. There wouldn’t be a rule against it if it wasn’t happening. It’s going to be embedded; it’s going to evolve the game.”

There is one common misconception about the changes: The rule itself was never changed.

“We didn’t change the rule,” Perry said. “We changed the penalty for the violation of the rule.”

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Alex Schmitz’s scare in 2010 wasn’t his first concussion, and it wasn’t his last. He was in a car accident in December of 2011 and had to be airlifted to North Memorial. The same doctors that treated Alex in 2010 did so again. The doctors told Alex his injuries from the car accident likely wouldn’t have been as bad had he not had the hockey injury a couple of years earlier.

Alex’s first concussion happened when he was in fourth grade, when he jumped off a curb on his bike, flipped over the handlebars onto the pavement and spent a week-and-a-half in the hospital. He had surgery on his nose and needed stitches to reattach his gums to his jaw. He had a bleed on his brain that started as the size of a golf ball and shrunk to the size of a quarter before it healed.

**********

Dangerous hockey hits have yielded tragic injuries and others that are harder to spot immediately.

Dr. David Tapper, a family physician at Allina Clinic in Faribault who has a certificate of added qualification in sports medicine, estimates he treated about 30 sports-related concussions from September to March, the majority of which were from hockey players.

Tapper and Greg Starkson, the Faribault Hockey Association’s president, have discussed administering ImPACT tests to all players peewee to varsity next season. An ImPACT test is a neurological assessment that gathers baseline data, and the results help with the future management of concussions.

Concussions are just another reason why checking now begins at a later age. Ask some coaches, however, and they believe the age of checking shouldn’t be pushed back but rather taught immediately.

Ward believes checking — and learning to take a check — should be taught the first year kids learn to skate.

“I think we have it all backwards,” Ward said. “I think we should be checking from the first day the kids play. We need to teach kids how to check — I don’t think guys know how to check anymore.”

Ward said it’s frightening how often he’s seeing that players aren’t checking correctly.

“I get looked at like I’m talking Greek to them because they were never taught,” Ward said. “They want to hear the big crash along the boards or knock someone on the ice. The point of emphasis should be to separate from the puck.”

Ward, who has always believed that checking is a big part of the game, said if players are taught to check at a young age they’ll know how to do it correctly and safely in the future. He said in a recent conversation he had with Ryan Duncan, a former Sabres player and Hobey Baker award winner at the University of North Dakota, Duncan told Ward how, at 5-foot-6, he’s never been big and had to learn from a young age how to play with what he was given. Ward relates those comments to checking.

“If you learn how to do it and learn how to from the first day you learn the game, that’s who you are,” Ward said. “It’s not a new thing to learn.”

But Ward’s opinion to start checking at a young age isn’t shared by all.

Pauly said with the size differential in kids being so pronounced at that age, it’s putting them in a position to hurt one another because they don’t fully understand the concept or technical aspect of checking yet.

“The things that truly make the game great are skating and skill,” Pauly said. “Let’s walk before we can run.”

Pauly also brought up the argument of technique versus attitude. Are kids simply choosing to deliver hits the wrong way even when they know better?

“There is a difference between going to finish a hit and going to put the guy’s head through the wall,” said John LaFontaine, the head bantam’s coach at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. “There’s too many concussions, just too many, and any opportunity you have to limit hits to the head or driving the head into a wall, that’s got to be stopped. There’s no room for that part in the game.”

And players and coaches will now be held responsible.

“The bottom line is it’s got to come back to the players,” Starkson said. “It’s about taking whatever player at whatever level and holding them accountable.”

The MSHSL will head into the 2012-13 season with its current penalty structure, and Minnesota Hockey will have its midseason changes reviewed by its board of directors later this summer. Opinions might always be divided.

“Whenever there are rules changes there’s always an argument for and against it,” Pauly said. “But if coaches know it’s there they will make the appropriate adjustments or they will lose hockey games.”

**********

About every two months Alex Schmitz receives a phone call from the Minnesota Brain Injury Association. They called him the fifth day he left the hospital more than two years ago to talk about ongoing symptoms and problems.

He doesn’t really have any, and it hasn’t affected his golf game, either. Schmitz shot a seven-under-par 64 to set the course record from the white tees at Stonebrooke Golf Club in Shakopee earlier this year playing for the Faribault boys golf team.

More than two years removed from his own life-changing accident, the pain, and the uncertainty, is gone. The memories are not. Euphoric or tragic, memories heighten awareness.

After Jablonski’s injury spread across the state the Faribault Hockey Association took donations for him by selling T-shirts and bracelets at some of its youth tournaments. Faribault was just one of the several communities trying to raise money.

One of those bracelets was worn by Alex’s dad, Rick Schmitz.

“I probably wouldn’t have done that had Alex not had that injury,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it.”

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