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Jack Jablonski

Minnesota high school hockey’s tougher rules to make the game safer will now be a national standard.

The National Federation of State High School Associations on Tuesday announced that checking from behind and boarding, considered the two most dangerous plays in hockey, will draw 5-minute major penalties. Previously, checking from behind in open ice along with boading were minor penalties nationally.

The changes, which begin with the 2014-15 season, govern play in 17 states that offer hockey.

Supporters of the move were surprised that it prevailed at the national level. A previous attempt to implement Minnesota’s tougher penalties never was voted upon by the organization’s 10-person ice hockey rules committee.

“It’s overdue,” said Mike Jablonski, whose son, Jack, suffered a spinal cord injury from a check from behind in a Benilde-St. Margaret’s junior varsity game. “Players are bigger, faster and stronger. My younger son, Max, is coming up in hockey, and I feel a lot better about that now.”

Minnesota’s unprecedented changes, approved and implemented within days after Jablonski was hurt in late December 2011, drew questions from some coaches about overreacting to one tragic accident.

“This validates our concerns,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys’ hockey coach Ken Pauly said. “Those who felt the rule changes were an overreaction — the onus now goes on them. We weren’t just speaking from an emotional place. You have to err on the side of protecting players.”

Why should dangerous penalties be the same as hooking and tripping, Craig Perry, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League, asked the committee in April.

The new rule language, while increasing the penalties for boarding and checking from behind, allows for referee discretion. If the hits are flagrant, a misconduct penalty and possible ejection can be called.

C.J. Beaurline, a veteran official and member of the national ice hockey rules committee from 2009-12, said the NFHS rules, which fluctuated the past two seasons, found solid footing.

“In my opinion, they nailed it,” Beaurline said. “The discretion is perfect because you don’t want to back off on the first level of penalty for those hits, but you don’t want to have to give a 10-minute misconduct for a middle-of-the-road situation.”

According to the 2012-13 NFHS high school athletics participation survey, 35,198 boys participated in ice hockey at 1,601 schools in 17 states.

Beaurline said other states can expect “growing pains” and more penalties called as coaches, players and referees grow accustomed to playing within the rules. In Minnesota, penalties soared and reckless play appeared to subside in the weeks after the penalty changes were enacted. Since then, the number of penalties has declined.

Moved by Tuesday’s announcement, Jack Jablonski said, “You don’t want to overreact and change the perception of Minnesota hockey. But it’s a safety issue, and we did the right thing in terms of amount of consequences.”

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

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