New safety measure for ice hockey coming to county

This article can be found published on the Southern Chester County Weeklies‘ website.
Volunteers and Upland employees spend their afternoon painting the ice. (Candice Monhollan)

Volunteers and Upland employees spend their afternoon painting the ice. (Candice Monhollan)

Thomas Smith was just any ordinary hockey player with a dream of landing a scholarship to play at the collegiate level and someday making it to a pro team.

“I grew up playing hockey and it was my dream to have a career playing it,” he said. “For me, hockey was the gateway to be the best I could be and it introduced me to so many great things outside of the sport.”

But that all came crashing down on him in 2008 and 2009 when two unrelated accidents on the ice sent him headfirst into the boards, leaving him severely injured both times.

… [Please continue the story on the Southern Chester County Weeklies website by clicking here.]

On Aug. 2, 2008, as he was chasing an opponent down on a breakaway, he tried to clear his goaltender, who had come out to poke check the puck. As he jumped over him, Smith’s skates caught the goalie’s mask, sending Smith headfirst into the boards. The impact paralyzed the young player.

A few weeks later, Smith was able to walk, but with bad spasms and convolutions. He was diagnosed as being internally decapitated, with four of his seven cervical vertebrae in his neck dislocated.

Smith promised himself he would walk again and did just that after spending hours upon hours in therapy and working on his balance and strength.

Amazingly, he returned to hockey the following season before, inconceivably, it happened again.

Skating around the net in practice on Oct. 1, 2009, Smith’s skates tangled with another teammate and sent him crashing into the boards, this time with the right side of his head taking the impact.

He injured his T-3 vertebra and paralyzed him yet again.

According to his doctors, this was a one in a hundred million case.

As he returns down the long road to recovery, his mission is clear: Try to prevent the same thing from happening to other hockey players.

“After my second accident, I believed we could do better and we could make the game of hockey safer without affecting the speed or adding any more rules to the game,” Smith said. “It was identifying how to create a cultural change for safety.”

That’s how Smith, with the help of a few others, came up with the idea of the Look-Up Line.

The line, which is bright orange, runs around the boards and extends in 40 inches.

The founders searched through visual safety developments in other sports, including football, basketball, baseball and even swimming.

“In 1974, football moved the goal posts from the goal line to the end of the end zone,” Smith said. “Baseball was where this idea was kind of born from. All sports have a visual cueing and warning to allow players to know where they are before they make contact with a solid object.”

The line is essentially a warning track for hockey players.

The message is simple: See the orange line, pick your head up.

“You should never have your head down along the boards,” said Nick Busillo, the president of the board at the Chester County Skating Club. “Your head should be up, that way you don’t snap your neck. It’s there for precautionary reasons and that’s it.”

The Look-Up Line is making a nationwide sweep, with over 250 rinks in 27 states expected to install the new safety measure by Nov. 1. Leading the charge are the states in New England. It has even gone international with Canadian rinks putting it in and Sweden showing a lot of interest in doing the same.

“We see the value and we see the merit and we’re hoping that New England will take the lead on this and other folks will catch on sooner rather than later,” Smith said.

But Chester County won’t be left out this season as Upland Country Day School in Kennett Square is becoming one of the first in the state to put down the Look-Up Line at its John M. Cleveland Ice Rink.

“We sat down as a group and thought this was a really good thing to do,” said Peter Schluter, the director of athletics at Upland. “We don’t want people coming into Upland and getting hurt. We want people to be as safe as they can in the environment that we have.”

The line isn’t just for the players with the puck, but also those who may be coming in to deliver a hit.

“Boarding is such a dangerous issue,” said Katie Keeports, the girls’ varsity coach at Upland. “It’s always scary, from our levels up to the pros, to see people’s heads go into the glass or into the boards. Any improvements to help the safety of the game are good steps in the right direction.”

Don’t think that means the line is intended to take away hitting.

“We specifically were working with officials and USA Hockey,” Smith said. “We are stressing to the officials that the line is not for them. If a penalty happens whether the line is there or not, you call it. We are very much against and not suggesting to put any potential rules inside the line because hitting is part of the game. It’s part of what makes the game great. What is unacceptable is this increase in catastrophic injuries we’re seeing and something needs to change.”

Despite it being the first major year — the Pingree School in Hamilton, Massachusetts had it last season — of the line, Upland is willing to become a sort of test dummy for the county. The next closest rink to have the Look-Up Line is in Bucks County, where the Philadelphia Revolution of the Eastern Hockey League play.

“We are literally the only one in the area (to have it),” said Corinne Hyzny, the director of marketing at Upland. “We want to be on the front end of safety. For as young as the kids are, you want to make it as safe as possible. It’s the beginning of a push that’s going nationwide. Hopefully it will be required for rinks, especially where kids are playing.”

The new safety measure doesn’t come without its critics, who claim the line with distract players or cause players to stop hitting.

“Some people think that it’s teaching the wrong thing, that they’re going to have their heads down looking to see where the line is rather than looking up,” said Court Dunn, the boys’ varsity coach at Upland. “There’s a lot of debate about it. My feeling is if we’re trying to do something to make it safer, why not try it? If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but at least we’re trying to make the sport safe. If you never try it, you’ll never know.”

Hockey has always been known as the sport slow to change, and this is no different.

“Hockey is a very resistant culture to change,” Smith said. “Folks are forced to change because of the speed of the game. The Look-Up Line does not affect the game, it just makes it better. It’s new and people, oftentimes in the hockey community, don’t know what to do with something that’s new and my response is to skate on it.”

Smith knows because he spent the time working with others to test out these theories, focusing specifically on three different factors:

1. Does the line affect the views on camera?
2. Does the line affect a player stick-handling the puck from the white ice to orange?
3. Will the goaltender still be able to see the puck in the corners?

The answer to each of those was a no.

As of now, it is not mandated by USA Hockey — the governing body of hockey in the country — to have the Look-Up Line, but its Board of Directors has asked facilities using it to report observations back to them.

“This is a trial phase,” Busillo said. “We’re doing it because we’re extremely safety cautious at the rink. We think it’s a great idea. We hope it raises awareness to keep the kids from getting hurt. No one wants to see their kids get hurt.”

Smith knows this isn’t the final answer the stop concussions or dangerous plays along the boards, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“We’re not saying this is the end-all-to-be-all solution,” he said. “The Look-Up Line doesn’t work without the educational component and that’s what we’re trying to do. This could be the on-ice beacon of hope to the educational component that is stressed off the ice.”

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Categories: High School Sports, Ice Hockey, Sports

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