On December 30, a single hit in a junior varsity game in Minnesota changed lives forever.
The Benilde-St. Margaret's junior varsity team was playing in a tournament game against Wayzata. Benidle sophomore Jack Jablonski was checked from behind by a Wayzata player. The hit sent Jablonski head-first into the boards, and he never got up.
Jablonski suffered a severed spinal cord, and surgery revealed the grim reality. Doctors do not believe he will ever walk -- much less skate -- again. At just 16 years of age, it's a tragedy beyond simple words.
While the result of the incident is utterly horrific, the response to it has shown how special the hockey community can be in times of crisis. Jablonski's Caring Bridge page has received over 350,000 visits, and his guestbook there has been signed over 7,500 times. Many of those messages have come from professional athletes, too many of them to mention individually. They come from sports besides hockey, and they come from places besides Minnesota.
The hockey community's response going forward is largely insignificant, as Jack's condition, prognosis, and all the recovery he can possibly attain are the highest priority for everyone.
However, those who follow the sport in Minnesota -- and probably elsewhere -- will be subjected to some debate going forward regarding exactly what can be done to make sure this doesn't happen to another human being, regardless of age, background, or anything else.
The fact that Jack Jablonski is not the only one in a Twin Cities hospital bed certainly adds to the debate.
18-year-old Jenna Privette plays hockey for St. Croix Lutheran, a school in West St. Paul. She dedicated her game Friday against the St. Paul Blades to Jablonski. As a previous victim of a spinal cord injury, Jablonski's story likely hit pretty close to home.
During the game, a Blades player checked Privette from behind. She's been hospitalized ever since, unable to move her legs. Doctors say an MRI revealed no broken bones in Jenna's spine, and there's hope she will regain feeling and the ability to move her legs.
Two serious incidents within a week of one another, both involving hits from behind, and both involving spinal cord injuries.
Checking is not allowed in Minnesota (and presumably other states that offer it) girls' high school hockey, nor in women's NCAA college hockey. Body checking is also banned in all levels of youth hockey below bantams, a move USA Hockey made last spring after a lot of conversation and debate.
There's no question that safety is a huge topic in hockey. Has been for years. It will continue to be, because we have to get this right.
Accidents happen, especially in games like hockey that are played at high speeds and with high intensity. Nothing that the powers-that-be can ever do will 100 percent protect players from the risk of injury. Of course, that doesn't mean we can't do better.
It starts at the youth levels. As Privette's father pointed out, there wasn't a penalty called on the hit that sent his daughter to the hospital. If a hit in a girls' hockey game is bad enough to send someone to the hospital, there's a pretty good chance it was against the rules.
The sport -- at the lower levels -- needs tougher officiating. Players growing up need to understand the rules and the consequences for breaking them. They need to understand the importance of respect -- for your opponent and for the sport -- and inconsistent or non-existent rules enforcement is not the way to teach these values.
Hal Tearce of Minnesota Hockey believes there are other forces at work.
"It's watching fights on the Internet, with the 'hit of the week' and the 'fight of the week,'" he said in an interview before the recent injuries. "We continue to glorify the parts of the game that are extremely dangerous to the participants."
I'm not sure I totally agree with Tearce, but there is probably something to what he is saying. While there is a certain glorification that goes on with fighting in pro hockey, there is also a respect that goes along with a lot of those fights. It's a respect that is missing when someone looks at the back of an opponent's jersey near the boards, and chooses to deliver a forceful hit anyway. That respect doesn't come from fighting, but the presence of it in hockey does not prevent that respect from being taught, learned, or practiced.
That's the respect that prevents many of the dangerous hits and situations we see in the sport. If it isn't taught to players at a young age, there's a chance we won't be done hearing about stories like Jack Jablonski's, a story we should strive to never see recreated.