ASSIGNMENT 13: Danger on the Ice

You've seen the headlines, teenagers taking big hits on high school hockey teams. While most of the hits aren't life changing, some are, even paralyzing some players, and coaches say it's happening more often. Tonight, we're taking a closer look at what's being done to curb the "Danger on the Ice." WEAU Sports Director Bob Gallaher investigates in this Assignment 13 report.

This story idea was sparked by a recent injury across the border in Minnesota, tonight we hear from that teen and his family, plus we show you how rules right here in Wisconsin could change, because of that hit.
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Matthew Knapp/E.C. Memorial Hockey Player: "Every time you lace up your skates, you have a chance of getting injured, it just so happens that that kid was hit from behind and that is tragic."

The tragedy that Eau Claire Memorial senior Matthew Knapp is referring to is the check from behind hit that left 16-year old Minnesota high school hockey player Jack Jablonski paralyzed in late December.

Michael Kapla/E.C. Memorial Hockey Player: "I'm very sorry for him and his family that it happened, but it is hockey, it's a physical sport, any sport that is physical, there is a chance you can get hurt."

While there is no denying that hockey is a physical sport, Minnesota Hockey says the way the game is played needs to be cleaned up, that transformation has already begun, with stiffer penalties, players who get called for a check from behind, boarding, or head contact will get at least a five-minute major penalty and possible ejection. Jack Jablonski's mother Leslie says the changes are long overdue.

Leslie Jablonski/Mother of Paralyzed Hockey Player: "Parents have been commenting about how they have already seen a change in the game and the way it's played and attribute it to Jack and what happened."

Eau Claire Memorial hockey coach Mike Schwengler says the checking from behind, head contact is part of the game that needs to go.

Mike Schwengler/E.C. Memorial Hockey Coach: "It's a step in the right direction, what they're doing in Minnesota, I think Wisconsin will see that by next year, that there will be a changeover, really it's all about education."

That teaching process includes using the "hug" technique rather than checking from behind, a major point of emphasis mandated by the WIAA and demonstrated to me at Memorial's hockey practice last week.

Bob Gallaher/Reporting: "Mike, the WIAA put out a letter last month in light of what happened to Jack Jablonski in Minnesota about the right way and wrong way to check in the corners, could you walk us through the proper way they want hockey players here in the state of Wisconsin to use the "hug" technique."

Mike Schwengler/E.C. Memorial Hockey Coach: "The biggest thing is any time you see guy on other team's numbers that's when you have to back off. A player comes in and if you have the puck, digging for it, the moment he sees that you've turned slightly or your back is to the boards, it's his job to hold up and grab hold of you."

WIAA assistant director Tom Shafranski says Wisconsin hockey implemented the "hug" technique directive a decade ago in an effort to avoid serious injuries, he believes the harsher penalties can be a deterrent.

Tom Shafranski/WIAA Assistant Director: "That is a strengthening of the rule that will support for officials and a message to high school hockey players about the significance of watching checking from behind, boarding issues, hits to the head, safety elements that can really cause significant injuries to student-athletes."

High school officials including 12-year veteran Joe Hogan says they can't stop the penalties from happening, but they agree with Minnesota Hockey and the WIAA that educating the players even during game situations can help prevent future tragedies.

Joe Hogan/12-year Hockey Official: "We try to talk to the kids out on the ice, if they're going into the boards, we're telling them, hold up on the, hold up on them, we're trying to teach them to slow down, grab them, don't send them headfirst into the boards, as soon as you do that, we have no choice but to call the penalty."

The big hits and in many cases, the potential life-threatening checks from behind showcased in the NHL may bring in higher ratings, but area coaches say it's a terrible influence on hockey's younger generation.

Mike Schwengler/E.C. Memorial Hockey Coach:
"I see guys trying to maim other guys, that's what kids are watching."

Scott Parker/Chippewa Falls Hockey Coach: "You think about a kid in a wheelchair over a hockey game, from a check from behind, that just can't happen."

But it did happen to Jack Jablonski and his life has been altered forever, and while he has shown improvement in movement in his hands and arms as he rehabs in Minnesota, his courage and determination are an inspiration to the entire hockey world.

Jack Jablonski/Paralyzed Hockey Player: "My goal is to walk and skate again, obviously I'm not sure that will happen, but I believe I will."

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If you would like to donate to the Jack Jablonski fund, you can do so by sending to this P.O. Box address.

Jack Jablonski Fund
P.O. Box 16387
St. Louis Park, MN 55416-2618
Or any Wells Fargo Bank, and mention "Jack Jablonski Fund"

In our Feedback 13, we want to know what you think, should rules be changed to ensure player safety, or is it an over-reaction to a sport that is, by nature, more violent than other sporting activities? Go to our Facebook page right now, and join the conversation.


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Mark Location: Wisconsin on Feb 14, 2012 at 07:39 PM
    Excellent story. Very important to talk about this topic, especially in this part of the country. Great work.
  • by Anonymous on Feb 14, 2012 at 07:11 PM
    Thanks, Mr. Gallaher, for covering this VERY important story! I'm glad it was an in depth story and not a short news piece. Great Job!
  • by Pat Location: Wisconsin on Feb 14, 2012 at 01:07 PM
    Thank you, Bob....this was an outstanding segment! Seems to me that tweaking & universally enforcing the rules are not mutually exclusive with playing or enjoying good competitive hockey! As the saying goes..."An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I'm sure that the kid spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair would agree.
  • by jc Location: chn on Feb 14, 2012 at 12:58 PM
    So why let your kids play surely there are other things they could do?
  • by Wayne Location: EC on Feb 14, 2012 at 10:22 AM
    Mr. Gallaher clearly knows his sports and always seems so flawless on air, especially when he goes live. But this story really goes above and beyond typical sports coverage. The topic is cutting-edge. It was put together and delivered so well.
  • by Hockey parent Location: Eau Claire on Feb 14, 2012 at 05:46 AM
    Just wanted to say that this story is outstanding reporting. I cringe every time my kids go into the corners to get the puck. Our prayers go to Jack and his family. Please tell Mr. Gallaher that we appreciate the awareness that he has raised with one of best stories we have seen on WEAU!
  • by Mike Location: Eau Claire on Feb 14, 2012 at 03:48 AM
    This story was so well done. Thanks, Bob, for shedding light on such an important topic.
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