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The Look-Up Line -- Will it really help

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A few months back I ran across a few articles on the topic, but I did not think much of it – to be honest. Then I read recently that the NCAA Rules Committee was discussing a decree this week at their annual meeting in Indianapolis. I am talking about The Look-Up Line™. The committee approved the use of a warning-track style line meant to positively impact safety near the boards. The use of this line will not be mandatory, but is permitted. In fact, USA Hockey’s board of directors also voted on a proposal to adopt the Look-Up Line™ at its annual congress on June 6 in Colorado Springs.

More specifically, this is a thick, orange line that is painted around the perimeter of the ice surface, 40-inches wide from the boards out. The color orange is supposed to act as a caution and the span for visibility.

Now I get it. This is a safety implementation. Nobody involved in the game wants to see any player ever injured on the ice whether at the collegiate, youth, or professional levels. The Look-Up Line™ origination is trying to serve two purposes: (1) giving players warning to keep their heads up in method to prevent head and neck injuries, and (2) be conscientious not to body check or contact opposing players from behind.

Too many neck, spinal, and head injuries are in the game and the Thomas E. Smith Foundation wants to help limit or eliminate in a perfect world the serious injuries. I do applaud the foundation for inventing and investing in a possible solution, but I certainly have reservations. Not that I am not about promoting a safer game, read my article on making body checking right in youth hockey. But more so, I am about developing players the right way from the grass roots up. This is why I think the origin basis in these dangerous hits is because players were not properly taught throughout their early years and hockey is a fast game – bodies move and change direction in spilt seconds. The game is played on ice with the laws of inertia on its side.

When teaching drills to young players, they should always be taught to keep their head up whether they have possession of the puck or not. One, when the puck is on your stick you need to know not only where your teammates are to make hockey plays but also avoid the opposition.

On the flip side, when without the puck a player needs to also constantly survey the ice by keeping his head up. The body checking aspect of the game needs to be demonstrated and educated with repetition and proper technique. How to approach the puck carrier, using shoulder while keeping arms and elbows down, not targeting the head, and knowing when a players is a vulnerable position especially near the boards. Also, kids need to know how to receive the check and how to position their body. Today, too many players go straight at the boards showing their back jersey number, instead of approaching puck at an angle. It is extremely important as well to show hockey IQ in this setting too. Players need to be cognizant of their surroundings on ice every second.

Plus, instilling in the adolescent minds why body checking is needed and whole purposes; which is to simply separate the man from the puck, not knocking the guy into the 17th row in the stands. Honestly, I think the respect factor has diminished in the game today. There used to be an unwritten rule that if you checked an opponent in vicious or borderline manner than you paid the price more so physically from other opposing teammates seconds later than in the penalty box. That notion has kind of flown out the window. Right then and there the incident was solved. Now days the play carries on and snowballs out of control because the ref does not stop the developments in its tracks and the player was not given proper repercussion.

Now if these concepts are practiced and instructed religiously from the ground up the use of a warning track style can be kept in baseball, not instituted in hockey. Like the stop sign warning you see on the back of some jerseys, the initial introduction might have caused some awareness but the luster has now warn off.

Good players know where the boards are and with continuous education by the time the bantam / U14 level is reached, all players should develop a sense of their surroundings around the ice on both sides of the puck to avoid the hazardous hits.

I actually reached out to several hockey personnel including a handful of NCAA Division I coaches and the unanimous response to the Look-Up Line™ was that it was unnecessary and did not serve any true purpose. Sure the installation costs may only be $500-$600 for rinks, but there are also unknown insurance implications and no proven data yet on its functionality.

From a player’s perspective, I can actually see the orange paint a bit of a distraction too. Sure over time the eye might adjust to the change, but black on white is visually more enhancing and really easier to pick the puck up. My thought would be players actually struggling to pick the puck up those having their head buried more, thus leading to more unsafe contact.

I also feel officials do not call the game properly at the youth levels as mentioned above, so players get away with damaging hits thus young players do not suffer the proper consequences right then and there. Therefore, they try and do the same harmful play again instead of officials and coaches stopping it in its path before the actions go any further.

Hockey is a physical sport and there comes risks with playing the game – no doubt. It was designed to be played on ice, with a puck, sticks, skates, and boards. You understand when you step out on the ice that hockey is a contact game. It is as if the next rule change will be playing on totally open ice without any boards.

Like the concussion epidemic that was a hot topic in recent years, it really stems back to the right coaching and officiating from the get-go. While the Look-Up Line™ has good intention with really little expense to install, the root cause needs to be fixed of the betterment of the game – not a band aid fix that may or may not work.

It is not that I am taking a trip to negative town on the idea, not at all. I am simply pointing out mine and others opinions as well as perspectives. Take former Boston University player, Travis Roy. His incident on October 20, 1995 that has left him a quadriplegic was a freak accident. He was not checked from behind or illegally. In fact, he was the forechecker on the play going for the puck against a bigger defenseman in North Dakota’s Mitch Vig. Roy actually initiated the shoulder-to-shoulder contact in the corner near the boards. It is very unfortunate of what happened next as Roy bounced off his opponent with his head hitting the boards.

Now would the orange strip have stopped this terrible accident? Probably not. It was just two hockey players simply trying to battle honestly for the puck and make a hockey play. Believe me, it hit home. I, myself was playing on own collegiate game that weekend. As I mentioned prior, you never wish for injury on any player -- ever.

But as a player you have that feeling and acknowledgment out on the ice. If you were taught well and have good hockey sense you understand when a check is coming, you know how to properly absorb the contact to minimize injury.

Perhaps the body checking at all levels should only be for the ‘elite’ players. Why would I say this? Because the more skilled kids understand the game better, have better skill sets, and athleticism. These players also have the mind set to play hockey the right way because they are looking to advance their career in the game, not make a highlight reel hit. If you ever watch a house league midget U18/U16 game, you will see some players that that can hardly control their body and actions on skates. Some players are even fairly new to the game. These are classic cases all around the ice whereby players not only do not know how to give a check but also poor positioning that makes them very vulnerable.

It is not discriminating or painting the picture that ‘non-elite’ cannot play the game. It simple is a safety precaution that could be the answer to avoiding many serious injuries. If you cannot skate well enough then you probably should not be throwing body checks for the safety of yourself and others out on the ice.

Now fast-forward to Jack Jablonski in December 2011. A different era from Travis Roy as almost two decades later. The Minnesota high school hockey player at Benilde-St. Margaret's who was hit from behind and is now left paralyzed. According coaches and even Jablonski’s parents, the hit although from behind was not malicious at all. It also seems a bit freakish in nature as he was actually hit by two players at the same time. Lastly, the game was at the junior varsity level, not varsity. Players at this level are both younger and less skilled. This relates back to my notion of allowing body checking at the upper levels of play.

Again, would the Look-Up Line™ prevent this unfortunate play? Again, probably not. Hockey is a fast-paced game. There are spilt second decisions made all around the ice constantly. Injury is part of the game.

Yet we can make a difference by teaching checking at the early ages in practices. So once players do reach a certain age and level they can start properly utilizing this skill. That is right, checking is a skill. Just like mastering the slap shot, saucer pass, or toe drag it needs to be rehearsed several times over.

I am not totally downplaying the Look-Up Line™ because I have an open-mind and I constantly communicate with many hockey contacts in the game at all levels on how to make players and the game better. It appears Stanley Cup Finalist, Chris Kreider, of the New York Rangers is endorsing the utilization of the new paint. Perhaps at the youth levels the Look-Up Line™ could be implemented. Although I really think if we as a hockey family of coaches, officials, and administrators do a better job of effectively teaching body checking this game will be far better and safer at the youth and eventually the pro, junior, and collegiate levels.

You can follow Russ Bitely on Twitter for more hockey articles, comments, and news: @russbites

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