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Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Look-Up Line creating revolution in rinks

By Brion O'Connor

It has no bearing on the rulebook, no impact on goals scored or goals allowed. Yet the Look-Up Line, a 40-inch bright orange "warning track" hugging the boards of a hockey rink, developed by a former high school star from Massachusetts, might be one of the most revolutionary innovations in the sport. And it's coming to a rink near you – maybe as soon as this summer.

The Look-Up Line is the brainchild of Thomas E. Smith, a 24-year-old native of Swampscott, Mass., who has become a passionate advocate for making hockey safer. Now, buoyed by the unanimous support of Massachusetts Hockey's board of directors, Smith is seeing his creation capture the imagination of hockey aficionados throughout the Commonwealth.

"We had a state meeting in the beginning of (May), and the room was full," said John Tobin, legal counsel for Massachusetts Hockey. "When this proposal came up, there was absolutely no opposition to the Look-Up Line. Everyone on our board thought it was a good idea. That's a very rare occurrence in any organization, let alone a hockey organization."

Of course, Smith aspirations reach far beyond Massachusetts' borders. He wants the line installed in every rink, from youth hockey to the National Hockey League. And he has allies in high places. He will meet with NHL officials in July, and already has the endorsement of the NHL Alumni Association.

"It's obviously a dangerous sport," said Jason Zent of the NHL Alumni Association. "The kids are getting bigger, faster, stronger, and the rinks aren't getting any bigger. Something like this, it's one of those simple ideas that, when you see it, you say 'Why didn’t I think of that?'

"When you're young, and just starting out, and even an NHL player, you sometimes lose your sense of time and space on the ice,' said Zent, a former NHL player. "The Look-Up Line is not enough to distract you from your game, but it certainly lets you know where you are on the ice. And those are the worst hits, when you're a couple of feet away from the boards."

Zent's assessment mirrors Smith's sales pitch. The Look-Up Line, he said, doesn't affect the speed, intensity or heritage of the game, or require any new rules. Instead, the line allows the game to flow uninterrupted, while providing players with a visual cue when they're approaching the boards. That gives them time to make adjustments to prevent injury. Similarly, the line promotes awareness among opposing players when they're lining a player up for a check along the boards.

"The game of hockey is the fastest it's ever been, but within the architectural framework, nothing's changed," Smith said. "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."

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It was in August, 2008, shortly after he graduated from the Pingree School in Hamilton, Mass., that Smith suffered the first of two devastated injuries. Playing for the Boston Junior Bulldogs in a tournament game, Smith was back-checking when he cartwheeled over an opponent. He went airborne, striking the boards headfirst. He was immediately put into a medically induced coma. When he woke up, he was paralyzed. Smith was transferred to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, where they determined he had dislocated four vertebrae. The spinal chord, however, wasn't severed.

Doctors in Miami were able to realign Smith's vertebrae. After three months of rehabilitation, he had full use of his limbs. His doctor, Barth Green, called him a "walking miracle."

By June, 2009, Smith was cleared for contact and he resumed his dream of playing college hockey. That summer, he tested as one of the strongest players on the Bulldogs. On Oct. 1, 2009, Smith and his teammates were practicing, doing hard laps. He got tripped up, and again slammed into the boards.

"I remember the whole thing," he said. "As soon as I hit the boards, I knew I was paralyzed."

Smith injured a thoracic vertebrae, completely different from the four vertebrae dislocated in the first accident, and was airlifted to Boston Medical Center.

"We had about ten doctors look at CAT scans, and the overall consensus was that I had a better chance of winning the lottery five times in a row than having two separate injuries, totally unrelated," he said. "They said if they were me, they would have gone back, and if they were the doctors, they would have signed off on it."

There wouldn't be a second miracle. Six days into his second hospital stay, Smith said he was rocked by the sight of a young patient who needed his father's help to hug his mother.

"I cried like a baby for about two hours," he said. "And I remember thinking to myself, 'You're so selfish. It was your decision to go back. It was your decision to try to live this dream of being a hockey player.' There's no reason I shouldn't have gone back, and there's no reason this happened. It just happened. That's all."

Together with former Bulldog teammate and good friend Tucker Mullen, who was then playing for St. Anselm's College, Smith formed the non-profit Thomas E. Smith Foundation. The aim of the foundation, he said, is "to give other the resources that I had."

"Our mission statement says 'No one should be denied accessibility base on his or her injury,'" he said. "It was to provide people with the best resources in terms of medical care, while raising money so we could buy them the best equipment that insurance doesn't always pay for."

Smith, who now walks with Lofstrand crutches, was also determined to make the game he loved safer. He began working with a number of engineers to develop padded boards that wouldn't change the way the game was played. But the models were not only expensive (estimated to cost between $75,000 and $100,000 for a rink to install), but they weren't effective enough in preventing injuries.

"We tried over 35 different models," he said. "Three of the models we thought we could reduce the force of impact by about 60 percent. The problem is that at 60 percent, the break has already happened. There was no evidence that we were preventing catastrophic injuries."

Additionally, the padded boards affected how the puck caromed off the surface. "As soon as the puck hit each of our models, it died. It just hit and dropped," Smith said. "So we were going against what we wanted to do. We don't want to change the game, we want to make it better."

Admittedly discouraged, Smith said a bolt of inspiration came in August, 2010.

"I was watching a Red Sox game, and that's where the whole concept of this Look-Up Line was born," he said. "It was the seventh inning of the game, and there was a fly ball hit toward the Green Monster. The left fielder was running back – he was in a full sprint – but as soon as he hit the warning track, he put his arm out and slowed down. And I thought, 'Wait a second. Is this something we could do in hockey?'"

Smith took to the Internet, and discovered not only the origins of the warning track (it was first installed by Major League Baseball in 1949), but similar protective measures taken by other sports. Basketball and football both moved the goal posts further from the playing surface. But it was the markings at the bottom of a swimming pool, which alert swimmers that they're approaching the wall, which might be the most similar to the Look-Up Line.

Smith originally envisioned a two-tone line, with yellow and red bands imitating a stop light, but changed his thinking after former Bruin Bob Sweeney said the red mirrored other markings on the ice. Finally, Smith settled on bright orange, a shade known as Pantone 151-C.

"It is the truest orange on the chart," he said. "When we put it down, it worked out awesome."

In March, 2013, Smith went to his former coach at Pingree, Buddy Taft, and asked to paint the line at the school's Johnson Rink. "He looked at it and said 'I love it. I don't know how this hasn't been done before,'" said Smith. "If it wasn't for Buddy convincing the school, and the rink managers, to put this down, this idea would still, to this day, just be an idea."

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This summer is a potential watershed season for Smith and the Look-Up Line. Riding the unanimous support of the Massachusetts Hockey delegation, Smith brought his concept to the NCAA and the USA Hockey in early June. The Look-Up Line got a bump at the collegiate level last January, when a variation of the line was installed at the outdoor rink at Fenway Park for the Frozen Fenway games. Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, who first saw the line while playing at the Pingree rink, was an early proponent.

"Regarding the NCAA, there was a unanimous vote to use it at Fenway," said Bertagna, who serves on the rules committees for both the NCAA and USA Hockey. "Those markings are not in the rule book, so I thought it best to go to them in January and get permission to use it on an experimental basis."

Dr. Alan Ashare, who developed USA Hockey's "Heads Up, Don't Duck" program immediately following Travis Roy's tragic accident at Boston University in 1995, has been one of Smith's strongest proponents for the past year. "If you get pushed into the boards, or checked from behind into the boards, keep your head up," he said. "That's an illegal maneuver, but at least if you keep your head up, you won't sustain a broken neck."

"The Look-Up Line is teaching the players what they should be doing with their heads when they're near the boards," said Ashare, head of USA Hockey's Safety and Protective Committee. "I couldn’t ask for anything better."

At their annual meetings in early June, officials with both the NCAA and USA Hockey stopped short of lending their full support to the concept. Instead, voters opted to give permission for any rink that houses NCAA and USA Hockey games or programs to install the Look-Up Line.

USA Hockey also established a Look-Up Line Task Force to continue studying the impact of the line. It's an impressive group, including Ashare, Bertagna, Dr. Michael Stuart (USA Hockey's chief medical officer, and father of former Bruin Mark Stuart), and Dr. Carolyn Emery of the University of Calgary (who has done ground-breaking work on concussions, and was the leading advocate in getting checking moved from Pee Wees to Bantams). Smith and Stuart are co-chairmen of the group.

However, USA Hockey's David Fisher said that while the board maintains "safety is our number 1 priority," the organization doesn't own the rinks. Furthermore, not enough empirical evidence has been collected to date to indicate that the Look-Up Line is an affective tool, he said.

"Our board, much like the NCAA, said the Look-Up Line is permissible," Fisher said. "That's not intended as an endorsement of the Look-Up Line, or a vote of support of any kind."

USA Hockey's Massachusetts affiliate didn't have the same reservations. Mass Hockey's board of directors unanimously supported the Look-Up Line initiative that went before USA Hockey voters. On June 14, they approved a $50,000 subsidy to reimburse 100 Massachusetts rinks $500 each to install the Look-Up Line (the estimated the cost of the paint, plus shipping, is roughly $550).

"Massachusetts Hockey is following the permission that was granted by USA Hockey's annual congress two weeks ago that will allow rinks to put the Look-Up Line in, and also encourage those rinks to share any data that they have related to injuries as a result," said Kevin Kavanagh, executive director for Massachusetts Hockey. "I think it's important that we do take a leadership role when there's an opportunity to increase safety in the game."

Kavanagh noted that while the majority of the discussion regarding the line has centered on "catastrophic injuries," such as neck and spinal injuries, he added that he's hoping that the data will show that the line is effective in preventing a host of injuries, including concussions, broken wrists, and separated shoulders.

"As a group, Massachusetts Hockey has been overly impressed with Tom, and his desire to see the Look-Up Line succeed," said Kavanagh. "And anyway we can support it at this point, we're happy to do so."

Although disappointed that the Look-Up Line didn't get a stronger endorsement at the national level, Smith said he was encouraged by the private support he received. He also said getting permission from the NCAA and USA Hockey was significant.

"The fact that we got it in writing is a huge step for us," said Smith. "It will give Dr. Ashare, Dr. Stuart, and Dr. Emery and our committee enough influence to start going out and doing our due diligence.

"For the rinks that don't do it, because it's not a strong recommendation (from USA Hockey), my hope is that they don't see the Look-Up Line as too much of an experiment, because it's not," said Smith. "I just hope that rinks don't wait, because there's absolutely no reason."

People are listening. At the annual spring meeting of Atlantic Hockey, commissioner Robert DeGregorio encouraged the league's athletic directors to consider installing the Look-Up Line (all but three of the schools own their own rinks). His brother, USA Hockey president Ron DeGregorio, has also gone on record supporting the concept.

State officials have stepped up as well, according to Smith. Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Jack Murray has earmarked funds to have the Look-Up Line installed in the nine rinks it operates. Furthermore, there are another 32 rinks that the DCR owns but are operated by private firms, and those companies are being encouraged to put down the line. And Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone has instructed the Look-Up Line installed in the city's two rinks, said Smith.

In addition to Pingree, the Look-Up Line was recently installed at the rink at Phillips Andover, where Mullen played. Smith expects more rinks to come on board shortly, especially given the incentive of Mass Hockey's reimbursement program.

"This isn't a knee-jerk, one-time reaction that we're just throwing down for no reason," said Smith. "We want people to grow with this, at all levels."

Smith said he understands that there is a resistance to the Look-Up Line among some traditionalists, and others who have concerns regarding liability. However, he said player safety should take precedent, and that's why the Look-Up Line will eventually be required. "Unless they can come up with a logical and educated response as to why this is not appropriate, we're going to fight tooth and nail to have this done at all levels," Smith said.

"Players have been paralyzed in hockey, and they've had concussions," he said, adding that collegiate hockey and gymnastics have the highest incidence of head injuries. "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?"