LINDSTROM, Minn. -- History was made at the ice arena in Lindstrom Monday night as the North Branch Vikings met the Blizzard of Northwestern Wisconsin. It was the first hockey game played under the new penalty structure imposed earlier in the day by the Minnesota State High School League.
Those stiffened penalties, discussed for years, were rushed into place after Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore Jack Jablonski was paralyzed in December when he was checked from behind into the boards.
"If you played the game or you're a fan, you can't not have that conversation without thinking about Jack," said Craig Perry, associate director of the MSHSL.
The league elevated - to major penalty status - checking from behind, boarding and contact to the head. That means mandatory five minute penalties, instead of two, leaving the player's team a man short for a full five minutes. If an offense is deemed flagrant, referees have the authority to toss a player out of the game, a suspension that carries over to the next game too.
"We want this out of the game, we don't want student athletes to be in a position where, in those three areas, serious injury can occur," said Perry.
Jack Jablonski's family had pushed for the changes. "It's just reassuring for parents," said his father Mike Jablonski from HCMC, where Jack remains in serious, but stable, condition.
Jack's 13-year-old brother Max is a hockey player too. "If we could change one thing, that would be when you're taking the body, you're not taking it to hurt them; you're taking it try and get the puck," he said.
Leslie Jablonski said her son Jack was pleased when he learned of the changes. "He's happy about it, he thinks it'll work. He said 'No player wants to be off the ice for five minutes.'"
In Minnesota's first game under the new penalties, both coaches cautioned their players.
"We had a talk about keeping the hands down and laying-off the backside, staying away from the numbers," said Grant Nicoll, head coach of the WSFLG Blizzard.
Mike Deschneau, North Branch head hockey coach, believes the decision was good if it protects kids. "Make sure we're doing the right things on the puck and not going for the big hit just to get the big hit."
Danielle Steffen, a hockey mom from North Branch, applauded the changes. "The most important thing to me is that the flagrant fouls are called fairly and quickly because the climate on the ice gets out of control pretty quick."
The MSHSL gained permission for what it termed "experimental" changes from the national organization that writes high school hockey rules. League officials say the rest of the nation will be watching the results in Minnesota, which leads the nation in the number of high school hockey players.
The Jablonski family views the high school changes as a first step. They are still waiting to see what, if any, action is taken by USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey. Those are the organizations that govern most of the youth hockey in Minnesota played outside high schools.
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