Referees Jerry McLaughlin, Josh Lupinek and Joel Lombard prepare themselves before a game between Edina and Maple Grove at Braemar Arena.
It took only 19 seconds of a game with state tournament implications to see the dramatic effect of Jack Jablonski's life-altering injury on high school hockey.
Standout Blaine defenseman Michael Brodzinski drew a five-minute major penalty and a 10-minute misconduct for checking from behind in Friday night's Section 5AA title game against Maple Grove. By the time his team returned to full strength, Maple Grove had scored four times. By the time Brodzinski got back on the ice, his team was staring at a 6-0 deficit.
Playing short-handed no matter how many goals are scored is the signature change of the tougher penalties instituted after Jablonski was injured. Favored Maple Grove breezed from there to a 15-1 victory and its first state tournament appearance.
The stiffer punishment for three dangerous penalties has changed many games this season, which culminates this week with Minnesota's marquee high school tournament in St. Paul.
The call to improve safety for players also has drawn representatives from some of the nation's most influential bodies in hockey to St. Paul on Thursday for a meeting to discuss how to make the game "as safe as possible while being true to the game.''
After the penalty changes were announced in mid-January, coaches and referees say, high school players responded with less reckless hitting and more respectful play along the boards, where Jablonski suffered devastating spinal cord injuries.
The five-minute penalties -- for checking from behind, boarding and head contact -- were envisioned to start culture change in Minnesota hockey but have, in some respects, caused culture shock.
"We got this thing put on our laps, and there is a lot of gray area," said Dennis Roach, charter clinician for the St. Paul Officials Association. "All the official knows is, they have to call an automatic five-minute major for some things. It's unfortunate, because it absolutely can change the game."
Players 'watch themselves'
The penalty changes were carefully announced to begin after the completion of games on Jan. 14, barely two weeks after Jablonski was checked into the boards during a junior varsity game. The rapid move by the Minnesota State High School League, which provided a training video for teams, was hailed as a strong first step toward changing hockey's culture.
Some stars on teams playing in this week's state tournament say players have struggled to adjust to the changes.
"People have been a lot more calm along the boards," Maple Grove defenseman Jordan Gross said. "Some people are even afraid to hit people along the boards now because they don't want to get the five-minute major. It's been a little less physical as of now, but hopefully it picks up again."
At Eagan High School, "Our team is pretty physical, so we definitely changed our playing style from the beginning of the season until now," forward Will Merchant said. "We used to take the body every game without regret. Now we have to watch ourselves in the corners and make sure we're pinning instead of hitting."
Grant Besse, a teammate of Jablonski's at Benilde-St. Margaret's, said, "For the remainder of the year I think it was the right choice. But maybe when the season is over, they should talk about it a little bit more and see if this is what they want to do."
Refs still on hot seat
Perhaps no one would welcome more refinements than referees, who suddenly were thrust into enforcing penalties with game-changing implications.
"I feel bad for them," Minnetonka coach Brian Urick said even before the section playoffs. "I'll never be a ref, I know that."
Referees such as Jerry McLaughlin, who will work his seventh career state tournament, aren't looking for sympathy. But they are hoping for better rules clarification and more discretion. All three automatic major penalties used to be two-minute minors that referees could make tougher as warranted.
McLaughlin called a five-minute major for boarding in Blaine's section quarterfinal victory against Coon Rapids. The hit "wasn't malicious," McLaughlin said, but it was a boarding penalty.
"Blaine's coach was not happy, but I told him, 'I don't have a choice,'" McLaughlin said.
Coaches have seen some referees take themselves off the hot seat by calling lesser penalties, such as roughing instead of head contact or cross-checking instead of boarding.
Jim Kirshbaum, assignment secretary for the Suburban Referees Association, agreed that the changing of calls has happened.
"Some refs don't want a big game decided by a call when their hands are tied to call a five-minute major," he said.
McLaughlin denied calling other penalties and decried any referee who does.
"If we're going to change the culture, we can't look for ways out," McLaughlin said.
League: Tweak but hold firm
The tension isn't going away. Minnesota State High School League associate director Craig Perry said he will lobby the National Federation of State High School Associations in April to make the automatic major penalties permanent throughout the country.
Perry said data on all three penalties has been collected but not tabulated. He is confident the data will support permanent changes to the penalties, thought "not necessarily written exactly the way they are now."
"I think for the most part, we're seeing the change at the rate we thought we would," Perry said. "We knew we'd have some issues and we know we're going to visit with everyone and ask what worked and what didn't. Then we'll tweak it and continue to make it better."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574