Heading into his senior hockey season, Verona’s Zac Keryluk had the option to leave his high school team behind for the junior ranks.
The power forward — considered one of the best at his position among state high school players — decided to finish his prep career with his teammates. He said he doesn’t regret his choice, despite a controversial change in the WIAA’s enforcement of the checking-from-behind penalty that has pitted player safety against the integrity of a physical game.
But he doesn’t expect many top-level players to follow his lead anymore.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Keryluk said after a game earlier this month. “And players in my specific situation — that could play juniors or high school — will play juniors, because this isn’t hockey.”
That’s just one of many elements at the heart of a statewide alteration to the enforcement of National Federation of State High School Associations Rule 6-7-2, a polarizing issue in Wisconsin high school hockey.
The rule itself — which states “hitting from behind into the boards or goal frame is a flagrant violation” — has been on the books for years. But what is causing the stir is a WIAA decision aimed at taking judgment calls out of the hands of on-ice officials and, for the first time, making a 5-minute major penalty and a game disqualification an automatic consequence for such a hit.
“You need a shock to the system to get awareness of the issues that are in place,” Verona coach Joel Marshall said. “Checking from behind is a major concern. We need to address it. It’s bringing attention to it, that’s for sure.”
Teams pay price, too
So far, that’s the one point upon which everyone — coaches, players and administrators alike — has managed to agree.
The major difference of opinion in hockey circles, though, has come in the WIAA’s attempt to enforce the game-disqualification aspect of the checking-from-behind rule. Under WIAA rules, teams with three or more disqualifications in a season will be banned from postseason play.
That’s where the two rules intersect and, already, two area teams are paying a stiff price. As of last week, Oregon and Stoughton had reached the three-DQ limit and have been removed from the WIAA tournament.
Oregon received its third DQ in late December, less than a month into the season. At the time, Panthers co-coach Brad Mastenbrook told the Oregon Observer newspaper: “We’ll play for the love of the game and we’ll compete. That’s what we do at Oregon and that isn’t going to change.”
It’s clear, though, the situation has caused friction at Oregon — Mastenbrook and fellow co-coach Rick Fleming were instructed not to comment for this story by Panthers athletic director Mike Carr — and elicited powerful opinions in every corner of the state.
“Don’t get me wrong — every coach wants (checking from behind) out of the game,” said Marshall, whose team has two game disqualification penalties. “It’s going to take some change to (win) over high school hockey, to help eliminate and/or reduce (these hits).
“(But) putting the team in jeopardy is a whole different element. I don’t think anybody, from the top team in the state to the 88th-ranked team in the state, should have their season subjected for these contacts. It’s unfortunate.”
Minnesota made national headlines over the same issue last year, changing its checking rules at midseason after Jack Jablonski, a sophomore forward for Benilde-St. Margaret’s, was paralyzed after being checked from behind into the boards during a junior varsity game on Dec. 30, 2011.
However, the Minnesota State High School League chose to apply stiffer consequences individually rather than penalize entire teams. Players in that state now serve a one-game suspension for that type of hit, a four-game suspension for a second offense and are benched for the season for a third offense.
Before this season, the WIAA decided to go a different route with the automatic game disqualification. And since the rule was already on the books barring teams from postseason play if they accumulated three game disqualification penalties over the course of the season, the decision increased the likelihood of teams missing out on the playoffs.
“We view this from an educational perspective and maintaining safety as a paramount for our hockey programs as the safest approach for handling this particular high-risk action,” said WIAA assistant director Tom Shafranski, who oversees hockey. “We’re very concerned about that.”
While an open-ice check from behind still only results in a 2-minute minor and a 10-minute misconduct, a check into the boards or goal frame is now equivalent, in all cases, to a fighting penalty.
Like Shafranski, Stoughton coach Chris Bradford also views the checking-from-behind infraction as an opportunity to educate. But Bradford feels the penalty — and its potential to affect entire teams — falls short in that regard.
“It’s a teaching moment for that athlete,” the coach said. “If they want to punish that athlete, that’s fine. They can (give) a game disqualification. But what’s really been unfortunate is for the other 29 players on the team to then be affected by that athlete’s ‘learning moment,’ if you will.”
It is yet to be determined how many other teams might be affected by the penalty change, but Marshall estimated the number of teams with at least one disqualification at more than 50.
“There wasn’t any more than 15 DQs total (statewide) in all of last year’s season,” Marshall said. “Seeing that number jump, there’s obviously an issue at hand.”
One injury is too many
Brad Karrels knows the depth of the issue all too well.
The Grafton co-op junior forward remembers reining in the puck just outside the blue line. Already several strides in front of the nearest defender, Karrels glided down the right wing, fired a wrist shot on net and, thinking the play was over, began to peel off to the right and head back down into the defensive end.
Then, contact. Karrels was hit from behind by a Greendale co-op defender who had come from the other side of the ice.
“I got a pass off the boards, I was skating off with it, I took the shot, and that’s pretty much all I can remember,” Karrels said of the Nov. 25 incident that ended his season just four games in.
Karrels received his second concussion of the season, a broken right wrist, a compound fracture and dislocation of the left wrist, as well as head lacerations when his helmet broke apart. But it could have been much worse. Just before hitting the wall, Karrels put his arms up, a move his doctor said may have saved him from far more serious injuries.
“He likely would have been paralyzed,” Grafton co-op coach Dan Wade said. “Even though he put his arms up, he still hit his head pretty hard on the boards. The doctor even said if he hadn’t put (his arms) up, he would have been in serious trouble.”
That was all Wade needed to see to back the WIAA’s rule change.
“I am absolutely not opposed to the three-DQ rule,” Wade said. “Yeah, teams complain about it, or people complain because, ‘Oh, we’re not going to make the playoffs.’ In the scheme of things, making the playoffs is so insignificant if one kid gets hurt. One’s too many.
“Is anybody going to remember what Team A and Team B do in a November game? No way. But you’ll remember that guy’s paralyzed the rest of his life.”
But Karrels has a different view on the postseason ban.
While he expressed concerned over teams that cultivate a culture of dangerous play, and praised the effort to deter it, he questioned the fairness of barring an entire team from the playoffs for the actions of a single player.
“I feel like the player should be suspended from the postseason, but not the whole team,” Karrels said. “It’s not the whole team’s fault that a player did that.”
Fairness isn’t the only issue that continues to divide players and coaches. Another is how to stop players from setting up dangerous hits with hopes of getting opponents disqualified.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Verona’s Marshall said. “We, as coaches, would never do that … but the boys have their own minds. As fast as this game is, you never know.”
And while the move to disqualify players for dangerous hits was made to relieve referees of the burden of judgment calls, coaches have expressed concern that the impact of those calls will create another burden on the referees, especially with more teams in jeopardy of being removed from the playoffs as the postseason draws near.
Shafranski says there should be no question among referees about to whether to make the call. Because of the obvious safety concerns, he said there are potential liability issues if officials turn their back to the rule.
“Officials are responsible for making that call and, as has been the case in other states, can find themselves in some very difficult situations, including legal matters if they don’t,” Shafranski said.
As the WIAA and its member schools wrestle with how safe to make one of its most physical sports, Shafranski said there are no plans to alter the impact of the new rule before the end of this season.
Oregon and Stoughton can appeal their postseason bans to the WIAA Board of Control. However, no school with three game disqualifications has ever won such an appeal, according to Shafranski, and had their postseason status restored.
“Like any rule changes, there are going to be growing pains with it,” Marshall said.