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WDC hockey player nearly suffered same fate as Jablonski

Christian Berg

Wadena-Deer Creek Head Boys' Hockey Coach Chris Holman can tell you exactly what it feels like to be checked from behind.

"You don't even know where you are for a second," Holman said.

You might be carried off the ice on a back board like WDC junior Christian Berg was in a Jan. 3 game at Fergus Falls. You might also end up in a spinal cord trauma ward like Jack Jablonski. The Benilde-St. Margaret junior varsity skater had his spinal column dislocated when he was checked from behind by a Wayzata player in a Dec. 30 game. Jablonski is paralyzed from his chest down with only limited movement in his arms. He is 16 years old.

Berg was injured in a Jan. 3 game in Fergus Falls when Fergus Falls defenseman Adam Evenson checked him from behind. Checks from behind are from different from a back check, which are only intended to nudge another player off the puck.

When Berg was checked from behind his head snapped forward and he went down.

"I lost all feeling in my neck right away," Berg said. When he tried to get up from the ice he found he could not do so. It was a terrifying moment. He was taken to Lake Region Hospital in Fergus Falls at given a CAT scan. His spinal column had taken a terrific hit but his spinal cord was OK. The next day he was sore and he had tenderness in his neck but he could walk.

Berg is seeing a doctor in Wadena as he waits for the back spasms he has experienced since the Fergus game to subside. He also had a hairline crack in one of the vertebrae of his spinal column which he hopes will heal. Berg said Tuesday that it looks two weeks before he can rejoin his teammates on the ice.

Berg does not blame Evenson for the hit. He turned just before the Fergus defenseman hit him and what would have been a legal check became illegal and devastating.

"It wasn't intentional," Berg said.

There are 10 types of checks in the game of hockey but hitting someone from behind in a Minnesota State High School League game will land the offending player in the penalty box and even earn them a two-game suspension. This was the penalty that Evenson drew.

Paralysis is not the only risk that hockey players court when they are on the ice. Checking an opponent from behind is considered the No. 1 cause of concussions in the game of ice hockey. Hockey players go into a game better-protected than football players and yet the fast-moving, hard-hitting game does not provide any absolute safeguards. The very nature of the game of hockey contributes to some of the danger from injuries. Holman has seen hockey players become faster and more skilled each year. A clean check can turn into a dirty one in the wink of an eye.

What Holman wants to see more of from players is finesse. The game can be incredibly fun and satisfying when played correctly and without malice.

"Hockey is a game of time and space," Holman said. "If you are on offense you want as much as you can get, if you are on defense you want to take it away."

The Minnesota State Hockey School League has warned coaches and players to avoid checking from behind but it's a problem that is not likely to go away. There is no equipment that Holman knows of that would safeguard a player from such a check. It is an issue that the hockey community has been dealing with for years.

Eric Olson, the Minnesota Hockey Officials president and director of officiating, wrote a letter to all Minnesota U.S.A. hockey officials Dec. 11, 2010 spelling out the proper penalty for a check from behind. Olson called on officials to call a penalty for a player checking another from behind regardless of where on the ice the infraction takes place. He also pointed out that if one player checks another and his hands or stick make contact above the shoulders it calls for an automatic penalty.

Jablonski will never play hockey again but Holman does not see what happened to him significantly changing the way hockey is played. Like others in the hockey community, he hates seeing a teenager's life altered so terribly in a split second.

"I don't know how you get a pound of flesh back for that," Holman said.