It was while watching baseball that Thomas Smith hit on his idea for making hockey safer.
One August Sunday in 2012, Smith was watching a Boston Red Sox ball game on TV when it struck him that outfielders chasing fly balls toward the wall never took their eyes off the ball, even as they got close to running out of room. The reason, he realized, was that once they hit the dirt warning track that is a standard 15 feet from the wall in major league parks, they could feel they were getting close. “They never looked for the wall,” says Smith. “They knew they were close, so they’d put an arm out and slow down.”
With that, he realized he had an answer to his quest to find a way for hockey to reduce the catastrophic collisions into the boards that can lead to brain and spinal injuries. The Look-Up Line is the Andover, Massachusetts, resident’s vision of hockey’s warning track, a 40-inch-wide painted orange band rimming the rink boards. The marking, he argues, will act as a visual alarm bell that tells players it’s time to straighten up and brace for contact.
Smith’s interest in safety is personal. Hockey accidents have left him partially paralyzed — twice. As a junior with the Boston Bulldogs in 2008 with aspirations of playing hockey at the college or professional level, Smith broke four vertebrae in his neck crashing into the boards while diving to defend against a breakaway. With therapy, he recovered full movement of his limbs and doctors cleared him to return to the ice. But skating in practice in the fall of 2009, Smith tripped and slid into the boards head-first, chipping a vertebra between his shoulder blades and damaging his ability to walk. He now uses two canes to get around.
But Smith still loves hockey. So he set out to make the sport safer, to find a way for players to better protect themselves without requiring changes to the physical nature of the game. Smith knew that any measure to reduce injuries could not involve extremes such as banning checking, or taking the heavy board hits out of the game. “I wanted to find a way to give the players a chance to make an adjustment without the need for rule changes that could alter the integrity of the game,” he says. “I understand wanting to protect the heritage,” he says. “What we’re not protecting is the players.”
Smith points out that other sports had made changes to protect players. Basketball moved the hoop post back off the perimeter line. The NFL requires goalposts to be offset from the back line of the end zone. Swimming pools have black lines on the bottom to alert swimmers when they near the wall.
But hockey, one of the fastest and most physical of sports, has made few changes to the architecture of its playing surface. And in contrast to sports where the ball is bouncing or in the air, much of hockey’s action occurs with players’ heads down because the object they battle over — the puck — is mostly at ice level. The result is bodies often bent at dangerous angles near the boards, a recipe for head and spinal injuries.
Smith believes that the Look-Up Line, which he has trademarked under the Thomas E. Smith Foundation, his charitable foundation, addresses that danger. He first experimented with the idea of adding foam panels to hockey boards to better absorb the force of hits, as NASCAR has done to protect drivers who hit the track walls. That idea was abandoned when testing showed the puck would hit the cushioned boards — and die. Smith was becoming discouraged when he hit on the baseball warning-track model.
With rinks already scarred by blue and red markings (not to mention the ads), he chose to paint the Look-Up Line orange, the universal colour for caution. “I didn’t want anyone coming back saying the colour affects how they see the puck,” he says. The premise is that the line will signal to the player that he is close to the boards and needs to adjust his body angle to accommodate the risk of collision. Smith also expects players to use the line as a mutual respect factor, knowing that they can inflict serious damage inside that 40-inch band.
A variation of the line was used in the NCAA’s Frozen Fenway tournament in January, and USA Hockey will vote in June on whether to mandate the Look-Up Line in all rinks (the proposal has gone to high school and university hockey administrators as well). The NHL is notoriously conservative and reluctant to do more than tinker with what it sees as the soul of the sport (see: fighting), but, like other major sports, it faces a litigious environment on safety issues. And the league has been willing to make other safety changes in the recent past. Two years ago, it replaced the padded turnbuckles where the glass meets the players’ benches with curved glass. And it mandated that all arenas install netting behind the goals after a 13-year-old fan was killed by a deflected shot in Columbus in 2002. That move was initially greeted in some quarters as an affront to sightlines. It now seems as logical as a smoking ban on airplanes.
“If someone can make a case to me why this idea doesn’t make sense, then I’m okay with that,” says Smith. “But I haven’t heard it. It looks okay on TV to the fan. It puts the responsibility on the player to protect himself rather than the referee to call a penalty. But we have a problem with head and neck injuries in our sport. With this, we have a chance to be proactive. Why wait until someone gets paralyzed or killed?”