By Brion O’Connor
The coming-out party for one of hockey’s most innovative developments was nearly a washout. Literally.
In January, during the outdoor Frozen Fenway games in Boston, Thomas Smith’s Look-Up Line was introduced to the public at large. But rather than the 40-inch bright orange “warning track” along the perimeter of the ice that Smith envisions, the line was reduced to a foot-wide strip placed about two feet from the boards. Concerns about the unpredictable New England weather, and the fact that the sun would be drawn to the darker color, required an adjustment.
“The year before, it was really warm out, and they had melting along the boards,” said Smith. “So (Hockey East commissioner) Joe Bertagna and the Fenway Sports Group came to me and said, ‘Tom, the last thing you want is for this thing to come through the ice, or bleed. We like your 40-inch mark, but we’re going to set it 28 inches off the boards.’ Thank god they did, because it was raining out one day, and was super warm, and it would have been a nightmare for us, because there was melting on that day.”
Smith has had his share of nightmares. The 24-year-old Swampscott, Mass., native and graduate of the Pingree School in South Hamilton has sustained two serious spinal cord injuries. The first occurred in August 2008. While playing for the Boston Bulldogs Junior A team, Smith collided with an opponent and crashed head-first into the boards, dislocating four vertebrae. Though told he might never walk again, Smith underwent intensive rehabilitation at The Miami Project at the University of Miami in Florida. A year later, he was back on the ice.
However, just 14 months following his initial injury, in October 2009, Smith was again sent into the boards and hit the right side of his head. He injured a different vertebrae, and was again confined a wheelchair.
Shortly afterward, Smith became determined to find a solution to board-related injuries. Initial attempts to “cushion” the boards, much like the barriers of a NASCAR racetrack, were discarded because the puck wouldn’t ricochet properly off the padded surface. The concept of a “visual cue” came while Smith was watching a Red Sox game with co-founder Timmy Roberts, and an outfielder chased down a deep fly ball. Seeing the warning track — which was established by Major League Baseball in 1949 — triggered the idea of the Look-Up Line, said Smith.
Together with close friend J. Tucker Mullin (Andover, Mass.), a former hockey player at Phillips Andover Academy and St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire, Smith formed the Thomas E. Smith Foundation, which promotes the Look-Up Line and other paralysis-related causes.
Today, Smith, who still walks with the aid of Lofstrand crutches, is a tireless and passionate advocate for his Look-Up Line. And it might not be long before the line is standard fare in rinks from coast to coast. The proposed line is on the agenda for discussion in early June at rules committee meetings of both the NCAA in Indianapolis and USA Hockey in Colorado Springs.
“I do think it’s a good option,” said Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.). “For those rinks that do a lot of youth hockey business, I don’t see any downside to it. As far as getting the meaning across, it might have more meaning at the youth hockey level.”
Smith is also making inroads with Hockey Canada, and the professional ranks, including the National Hockey League.
“The game of hockey is the fastest it’s ever been, but within the architectural framework, nothing’s changed,” said Smith. “That’s why we’re seeing an increase with injuries. There’s no denying that there’s a problem, and quite honestly, I think it’s an absolute no-brainer for the NHL to adopt this.”
Smith’s original two-tone concept — featuring yellow and red bands — eventually gave way to a solid orange line. To put the importance of the project into perspective, he said the cost of the paint, including shipping, is less than $550. By comparison, Smith’s medical bills exceeded $550,000.
Though the Look-Up Line closely resembles baseball’s warning track, Smith said it also reflects safety-related innovations in other sports, such as football moving the goalposts out of the end zone, and lane markers in pools to alert swimmers how close they are to the wall.
“Players have been paralyzed” in hockey, said Smith. “And they’ve had concussions. Hockey and gymnastics are the two highest college sports in terms of head injuries, so we know the current system is not working. So why the heck wouldn’t we do this, based on the fact that it’s worked in every other sport?”
According to Smith, the Look-Up Line is a “is a preventative approach to making the game of hockey safer for participants of all ages without affecting the speed, intensity, heritage or additional rule changes.” The line, he said, serves the following purposes:
The idea has quickly gained traction, in part because of Smith’s enthusiasm for his cause, but also because the concept makes so much sense.
“I first heard about it last May, 2013, and I thought it was a fabulous idea,” said Dr. Alan Ashare, chairman of USA Hockey’s safety and protective equipment committee. “And why? Because (USA Hockey’s) ‘Heads up, don’t duck’ program is not getting enough prominence. This is teaching the players what they should be doing with their heads when they’re near the boards. I couldn’t ask for anything better. I am really pushing for this.”
One reason is reflected in an April 15 New York Times article by Jeff Klein, which states: “From the 2008-9 season through 2011-12, there were eight catastrophic injuries in American high school hockey, according to the university’s National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.” Among those hurt were Matt Brown of Norwood in Massachusetts in 2010, and Michael Nichols of Monroe Township, N.J., in January.
The same article quotes Ashare as saying that regardless of whether a penalty is called on a dangerous hit by the boards, “the damage is already done” if the hit results in an injury. And Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.), the New York Rangers forward who is a friend of Smith’s from youth hockey and former teammate of Mullin’s at Phillips Andover, was quoted as saying that the Look-Up Line was “a great idea for safety and awareness, especially for younger kids and at the high school level.”
The four-person USA Hockey contingent from Massachusetts, including executive director Kevin Kavanagh, has agreed to unanimously support the Look-Up Line measure during the early June USA Hockey meetings, said Mike Bonish of MassHockey. However, that doesn’t guarantee that the line will be adopted on a national level.
According to a memo from USA Hockey’s Safety Proposals Task Force, the current proposal is to have rinks incorporate the line “immediately,” while others have suggested amending the proposal to delay “requirement” of the line until the 2016-17 season. That USA Hockey memo also raised several questions, including whether to make the line mandatory, determining liability for rinks and programs, and establishing costs.
“My own feeling is that (the Look-Up Line) doesn’t work alone,” said Ashare. “But what it does is raise a lot of questions. What the heck is that there for? Once you ask that question, then we’ve got you. What we want you to do when you’re near the boards is keep your head up. If you get pushed into the boards, or checked from behind into the boards, keep your head up. If you keep your head up, you won’t sustain a broken neck.”
The Look-Up Line has no bearing on the rulebook, no impact on goals scored or goals allowed. Still, there are rumblings that some hockey purists don’t want to see more markings on the ice. Smith, however, said liability concerns could force the issue.
“The resistance part is not going to fly with the lawmakers, because this is a safety issue,” he said. “You can’t resist something simply because you don’t like change. That reasoning is just not good enough.”
And Smith appears to have allies in high places. A July meeting with the NHL and Brendan Shanahan is being rescheduled, due to Shanahan leaving the league office to assume control of the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, the NHL Alumni Association is on board.
“For professional athletes — whether you’re playing the NHL, or professional baseball, or the NFL — part of the job is to carry the torch, and leave the game better than we found it,” said Jason Zent of the NHL Alumni Association. “Based on all the experiences that we had, and for all those kids who are coming up, how do you make the game better, safer? This idea falls right into that.”
Ashare was more blunt in his assessment.
“There’s no hockey rink that should not have this line, and I’m including the NHL rinks,” he said. “I don’t know that the NHL players need it, but I do know that a lot of people watch NHL players, and they then can be seen as somebody promoting safety. I think they’re all in favor.”
This article originally appeared in the June edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.
For details on the Look-Up Line, visit the Thomas E. Smith Foundation at justcureparalysis.org.