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Published June 24 2012

Minnesota youth hockey cracks down on illegal hits

ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — The type of illegal hockey hit that paralyzed a Minnesota high school player last December will continue to trigger an automatic 5-minute major penalty in Minnesota youth hockey, the sport's governing board decided Sunday.

The Minnesota Hockey board members voted 18-6 to extend the move it made at the end of last season, a rule change that elevates the penalty against the team from a 2-minute minor, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

The vote, during the board's meeting in St. Louis Park, followed two hours of passionate discussion, Minnesota Hockey president Dave Margenau said.

An ad hoc committee had previously recommended returning to the penalty structure that had been in place before Benilde-St. Margaret sophomore Jack Jablonski was hurt. That system gave referees the discretion to determine the severity of penalties for boarding and checking from behind.

The committee also recommended stepping up accountability of coaches, players and referees.

"We need to bring the rules back within the rule book," said Eric Olson, a member of the safety committee. "We're not going to tolerate intimidation hits."

Board members expressed mixed feelings on the issue. Margenau told board members he "flip-flopped on this thing at least a dozen times in the last week," in part because of concern that the tighter rule had been in place for only a month last season, providing inadequate data as to its effectiveness.

Board member Brad Hewitt, said he was in favor of keeping the 5-minute mandatory penalty.

"We need to err on side of protecting our kids," he said.

Sunday's decision means youth hockey rules will be consistent with those of the Minnesota State High School League, which made similar changes to penalties for checking from behind, boarding and head contact.

Board members occasionally brought up Jablonski's circumstances. He was injured when he took a devastating hit during a junior varsity game Dec. 30. His mother said last month he had slightly moved his left leg, ankle and finger, a development that encouraged her because medical specialists had previously told the family that movement was unlikely.

Some board members also noted that representatives for Jablonski's family have consistently said they don't want to change the game, but rather want to change the sort of behavior that leads to dangerous hits.

Most of the state's youth hockey levels prohibit any kind of checking.