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Prep hockey: Injuries teach stark lesson

Legal check: Brainerd senior forward Matt Pohlkamp pins Willmar sophomore defenseman Tyler Pendill to the boards in a Central Lakes Conference game at the Cardinal Arena on Dec. 20. While it appears that Pohlkamp, an all-conference football player, had taken a run at Pendill the photo sequence shows the two players had been jockeying along the boards for control of the puck and no penalty was called. Pendill skated away seemingly unfazed. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

Two area prep hockey coaches say the serious injuries sustained by two Minnesota players in the last two weeks won't necessarily serve as a stark, teachable moment for their players. They don't need singular events to preach on-ice safety since it's an issue addressed constantly, from mites to varsity.

"We're always talking about checking and safety, but it happens," said Willmar boys head coach Dan Tollefson. "It's not that hockey is a bad sport, it just happens."

Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore Jack Jablonski, 16, has been partially paralyzed since a Dec. 30 game when a hit severed his spinal cord. He's regained some movement but, initially, experts don't believe he will walk again.

Jenna Privette, 18, of St. Croix Lutheran in West St. Paul, was injured in a Jan. 6 game. While she's in satisfactory condition, she's unable to move her legs or feet.

Checking is not allowed in girls hockey, and it is not allowed in the boys game until the bantam levels. Checking from behind is not allowed at any level.

Tollefson said coaches stress safety from the minute players first step on the ice. Youth players wear jerseys with stop signs on the back, reminding players during games that they must pull up when they see the sign.

"The play when he (Jablonski) was injured, it wasn't a hit where the other player was trying for that to happen," Tollefson said. "It was a situation where it was bang-bang. With the kids, they're taught that anytime they see that (stop) sign on the back, you just can't hit. You just have to let up."

Kirby St. John, head coach of the River Lakes girls team, said that when severe injuries happen, they do make coaches and players more aware of the potential dangers. But he believes the continual coaching of safety keeps players from playing scared.

"It hasn't affected them when they're going into the corner or coming together," St. John said. "I've got kids in hockey, and people will ask me, 'Don't you worry about them playing?' But my kid could fall out of a tree. That's just as likely to happen as getting severely hurt in a hockey game."

The Cardinals boys team has sent a card to the Jablonski family. St. John said his players have "taken ownership" of the situation and are coming up with ways to show support for the injured players.

"We know they're dealing with it, talking about it," St. John said.

Tollefson said it's a difficult time, with the Willmar program also dealing with the recent death of former Cardinal player Stephen Reynolds. But he's confident most players will react the right way, now and in the future.

"The hockey world is a small world," Tollefson said. "There are some players who know them or know somebody who knows them. It's a scary deal and the kids feel bad, but the kids also respect each other."

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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