MINNEAPOLIS - Swishing skates. Clacking sticks. Pucks pinging off the goal pipe. The sound of hockey is unmistakable.
It also can be frightening, as the parents of Jack Jablonski learned last month. The 16-year-old was paralyzed by a check from behind that sent him headfirst into the glass.
"Every time you hear that crash into the boards, you just cringe and pray to God that child gets up," his mother, Leslie Jablonski, said. "This time, when it was mine who went down, I can't even explain how I felt. When he didn't get up, I knew something was wrong. When I went out onto the ice, and he said, 'Mom, I can't move,' I almost collapsed on top of him."
Jablonski was hurt during a junior varsity game in the Minneapolis area on Dec. 30. His spinal cord was severed at the neck and two vertebrae were fractured. His family was told he won't be able to walk anymore.
"Every parent who's been at a game, you count to five, 'OK, get up,'" his father, Mike Jablonski said. "Sadly, he didn't get up."
Now in a rehabilitation facility after more than three weeks in the hospital, Jablonski can sit up in a chair and move his arms below the triceps muscle, surpassing doctors' expectations. He has a long, arduous road ahead in his attempt to prove medicine wrong and use those legs again.
He's also fueling another mission, to make hockey safer.
Days after Jablonski's injury, Jenna Privette, a senior at another Twin Cities high school, lost the use of her legs from an in-game collision.
"We don't want this to ever happen to anyone else again," Leslie Jablonski said. "It shouldn't have happened. Shame on us. We've all seen how this sport has gone from skill to danger and violence, and now it's time to do something."
The Jablonskis have asked hockey teams and players to take "Jack's Pledge," an online vow to eliminate unnecessary roughness from the game. Their hope is not to take the hitting out of hockey but to make it more skillful.
The Minnesota Hockey organization voted unanimously this week to upgrade the punishment in youth and amateur games around the state for boarding and checking from behind to a minimum five-minute major penalty. Earlier this month, the Minnesota State High School League essentially did the same, also adding contact to the head to the list of automatic majors, with immediate disqualification possible. Such significant midseason rule changes are rare, one sign of the wakeup call Jablonski's injury gave the sport.
USA Hockey, the nation's governing body, has not adopted the harsher penalties. But it issued a "standard of play" initiative more than five years ago to push a "zero tolerance" policy toward boarding, checking from behind and other infractions. Last year, USA Hockey introduced a skill development program to encourage proper checking technique.
"Safety is the top priority every single day in our national office," spokesman Dave Fischer said.
So how did the game, even for teenagers, become this dangerous?
Talk to almost anyone involved in or following hockey at any level, and you'll inevitably hear that the sport has sped up.
With sticks, blades, ice and a confined playing space, hockey is already an inherently risky activity. An increasingly competitive society - that "win at all costs" mentality all sports find themselves trying to cope with in sane, healthy, safe ways - has contributed as well. When coaches criticize referees for calling games too tight, lax enforcement can often follow.
"If they're going to call boarding, a check from behind or a blow to the head, an official should not be lambasted for that," said Ken Pauly, Jablonski's head coach at Benilde-St. Margaret's High School and president of the state coaches association.
The key, then, for this grass-roots effort will be to make enough strides so that when the public emotion over a 16-year-old's paralysis subsides a long-term change will have been effected.
"That falls to the adults in charge of the sport, the gatekeepers of the sport at all levels, to basically enforce what's out there," Pauly said, adding: "Any coach, if they know that strategy is not going to work toward the end of winning, is going to change their style."
Former NHL star Mark Messier, a youth coach and safety advocate in his post-playing days, said he's concerned about the decrease in "survival instincts" that players carry. Proper checking techniques and positioning along the boards are vitally important.
"For some reason the game is being taught or played differently. Obviously we're seeing the results of that," Messier said.
Lou Nanne, a former NHL player, coach and executive, recalled advice from John Mariucci, his coach at the University of Minnesota.
"He said to me, 'Checking is a privilege,' and I never forgot that. You check somebody to eliminate him from the puck. You check somebody to take him out of the play. You don't check indiscriminately," said Nanne, an advocate for youth hockey safety who has encouraged coaches to tell players not to check from behind as they take the ice at the beginning of each period. He's also a fan of putting stop signs on the back of the jerseys as a last-second, visual reminder.
The outpouring of support for Jablonski and his family has been remarkable. An annual statewide celebration of the sport last weekend raised more than $134,000 for Jablonski's medical bills. Signed jerseys came to his room from Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and the entire Minnesota Wild team, in addition to dozens of other players and squads from high school to the NHL. Wild right wing Cal Clutterbuck, in a group of players who visited Jablonski in the hospital one day, promised to score a goal for him in the first period of that night's game.
"We feel that this is one of our own here who had this accident and this injury, and believe me we're hurting," Wild head coach Mike Yeo said.
It's not the same kind of pain, but the entire NHL has been hurting as much ever with another rash of concussions. With Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby leading the list, an average of more than two players per team have missed games this season because of them.
The league has cracked down harder this season on checking from behind and hits to the head. Danger, though, still lurks in the increased speed of the action on the ice. The obstruction penalty - brought up after the lockout in 2005 to help improve the flow of the game and make it more exciting for the fans the league was trying to win back after a canceled season - doesn't appear likely to go away.
"It's got to be the fastest it's ever been for sure," Minnesota center Kyle Brodziak said. "That's what everybody's trying to build as a team in today's game: the biggest, fastest team."
Crosby was out for more than 10 months last year. He came back for eight games this season but hasn't played since Dec. 5 because of a recurrence of those debilitating post-concussion symptoms like dizziness and headaches. He said the league "can only do so much" to prevent these injuries.
"At the end of the day it's up to us as players and that being said, it's a quick game and things can happen," Crosby said, adding: "I think if that effort and caution toward those things are consistent, then we're going to see a change."
Using a wider sheet of ice like the European leagues and the Olympic tournament would eliminate some of the risk, but the NHL isn't likely to make that move from tradition.
Better equipment can help. Messier has made a second career of sorts out of concussion awareness and prevention, helping Cascade Sports design a special helmet - the "M11" - to better stem the blows to the head. The strongest protection in the world can't fully guarantee an injury-free game, however.
Minnesota left wing Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has missed 121 regular-season games since March 2009 because of concussion symptoms, suffered his latest blow when he turned his back to protect the puck behind his net during a game last month. He was drilled into the boards.
"It's a physical sport. It's always been, and I think it's going to be like this forever. It's part of the game. But I think guys have got to be smarter about it," said Bouchard, who wears the Messier helmet and a special mouth guard to help soften hits to the head.
Intelligence and respect, whether with peewees or in the pros, are ultimately the most critical factors in keeping hockey healthy.
"It's a fast game. But at the same time it's a thinking game. You don't have to be the fastest guy, but you can be a smarter guy out there and be able to read plays. That's when you put yourself in better position," Colorado center Paul Stastny said.
Buffalo right wing Jason Pominville agreed.
"If you see a guy in a vulnerable position, and you don't really need to hit him and take the puck, why hit him? Go for the puck," Pominville said.
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