Throughout his years in youth hockey, Neil Sheehy believed the surest route to the NHL was to be the toughest player on the ice. But when he got to Harvard, he was stunned to hear coach Bill Cleary tell him that he was focusing too much on hitting and not enough on skill development.
Cleary told Sheehy that no matter how rugged he was, he wouldn't advance without honing his skating, passing and shooting. Sheehy went on to forge a seven-year NHL career as a physical, gritty defenseman, but he knows he would not have gotten there without Cleary's advice.
On Thursday, he urged the wider hockey community to embrace the same philosophy.
Sheehy was among 13 high-profile minds from the hockey world at St. Paul's RiverCentre for a Player Safety Summit, held just before the state Class 2A tournament began across the skyway at Xcel Energy Center. The discussion was organized by the Herb Brooks Foundation. That the late coach was quoted frequently seemed appropriate, since they all kept coming back to Brooks's philosophy of doing right by the game they all love.
The check from behind that paralyzed Benilde-St. Margaret's forward Jack Jablonski -- and growing concern about concussions among young players -- have highlighted the issue of player safety. Some have responded defiantly, insisting there is nothing wrong with the game. Others cite pushy parents, the glorification of rough play and a win-at-all-costs mentality as evidence of problems that must be addressed.
Thursday's panel suffered no such divisions. Representatives from youth-league administrators to NHL veteran Sheehy agreed that the game's culture needs to refocus on skill, safety and fun -- taking a stand that Brooks would have appreciated.
"Growing up, I heard coaches say all the time, 'Finish your checks. Make your defenseman eat glass. Play with reckless abandon,' " said Sheehy, now a player agent. "Those were all buzzwords in hockey, but maybe they need to be eliminated from the culture.
"Every time I go to the rink, I don't look at players who can hit, who are big and tough. I look for skill and speed. It's about skill development, and that's what this country needs to focus on. That's the perspective we have to get out to players and parents and everybody in this game."
John McClellan, executive director of the Herb Brooks Foundation, noted that the iconic coach championed the Olympic style of hockey. He stressed playmaking and finesse rather than bone-crushing checks. He supported eliminating checking at the pee wee level, a proposal that ignited a major rift in Minnesota youth hockey when it was instituted last summer.
Thursday's panelists echoed Brooks' chief mission of emphasizing skill development in young players while keeping the game fun. To get back to that ideal, they said, everyone in the hockey web -- players, parents, coaches, officials, administrators and fans -- must take responsibility. All must respect each other and support a common goal of playing clean, well-executed hockey.
Jon Bittner, past president of the Minnesota Boys Hockey Coaches Association, stressed that it will take courage to change. He noted it is not impossible, citing the steps NASCAR has taken to improve driver safety despite criticism from old-school fans.
Ideas tossed around Thursday included modifying rinks and equipment, gathering data to help understand and prevent injuries, and providing more training for coaches and officials.
Still, most of the talk came back to the segment of the culture that exalts violent hits while undermining respect. Greg Shepherd, supervisor of officials for the WCHA, told how his son -- also a referee -- was once chased through a parking lot by a coach and parent angry that a player had been ejected for an illegal hit. Gophers coach Don Lucia recalled how one of his sons was criticized at a pee wee tryout for being a "skill player" when the coach wanted 12-year-old toughs.
McClellan said Brooks would have endorsed the discussion, though he pointed out that the coach probably would have advocated more forcefully for change. Before his death in 2003, Brooks spoke about the need to transform youth hockey, to seek bold solutions and challenge the status quo.
In examining the current state of the game, asking what Brooks would have done is a good start. So was the safety summit, which elevated a conversation that the state of hockey should not end any time soon.
-- Rachel Blount, Star Tribune staff writer