VADNAIS HEIGHTS, Minn. - Early on a Sunday morning, a few dozen soon-to-be hockey referees gather at the Vadnais Heights Sports Arena for required training.
"We talk about the rules and the enforcement being put on us by USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey," says long-time instructor Mark Verplaeste. "We've put a larger emphasis on player safety."
The emphasis follows a season which saw some high-profile injuries including a check-from-behind hit which paralyzed sophomore high school player Jack Jablonski. Injuries like that caused governing bodies that oversee high school hockey and youth hockey in Minnesota to make unprecedented, mid-season rule changes.
"Boarding, checking from behind, and contact to the head are a minimum 5-minute major penalties," says C.J. Beaurline, a member on the National Federation Rules Committee. "It hurts the players and the team significantly."
Those changes remain this season.
Youth hockey officials made similar changes. A checking from behind penalty means more time in the penalty box and possible suspensions or disqualifications.
The hope is with increased enforcement comes a shift in the way coaches coach and players play.
"We need to get coaches teaching proper technique and players buying into it," says Beaurline." A culture shift takes time, but we need everyone on board."
That includes referees who are now being taught to call a boarding or checking from behind as it is.
"We won't be calling a cross-check anymore," says Verplaeste. "We've already seen a change in behavior."
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