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Look-Up Line

By Thomas Smith, 03/07/14, 6:30AM EST


The Warning Track of Hockey

Physical play is part of hockey. Even at the lowest levels of youth hockey, there will always be some pushing and shoving in those areas of the ice likely to produce battles for the puck and space.

As players advance through youth hockey and beyond, the possibility of injury increases. Every league commissioner or administrator has tried to come up with a solution to these issues. It’s never an easy process. Players, parents, coaches and spectators all want the game to be safe. Making it that way isn’t easy, though.

Thomas Smith, a former hockey player, suffered two spinal cord injuries, first in August 2008 and again October 2009. Since, he’s worked with a number of people to develop a solution to hockey’s greatest problem.

His breakthrough came while watching the Boston Red Sox. A flyball drifted toward Fenway Park’s famed Green Monster, and the outfielder tracking the play headed back. Instead of racing into the wall, though, the player held up just before crashing into it.

Baseball mandated the implementation of warning tracks around the field in the 1949. Smith had watched countless baseball games in his life, but this instance led to something of a breakthrough. He thought the same concept could work in hockey.

“We wanted to develop something that could prevent head, neck and spinal cord injuries that didn’t interfere with the speed, intensity or heritage of the game,” Smith says. “I thought if a warning track has worked in baseball, why didn’t hockey have something like that?”

The Look-Up Line was born.

Simply put, the Look-Up Line is a 40-inch orange line painted all the way around a hockey rink. The brightly colored mark is designed to give players a greater sense of their surroundings to remind them where they are on the ice. It reminds player to keep their heads up around the boards, as well as telling them not to initiate certain types of contact.

Around the boards, it doesn’t take a big hit to do permanent damage. Smith, himself, spent 27 months in a wheelchair after the two incidents that ended his hockey career. The names of countless other young players stick with those in the hockey community as reminders of this game’s danger. Anything that can curtail these incidents must be investigated, and Smith believes the Look-Up Line is the perfect solution.

“We’re never going to take it out of the game completely,” Smith says. “But if one person says it’s changed the way they play for the better, it’s worth it. The cost of recovering from a spinal cord injury can range into the millions of dollars. Aside from the impact it has on a young man or woman’s life.”

Currently, Smith’s Look-Up Line is being experimented with at different rinks around Massachusetts. Most notably, Smith and Hockey East worked together to put the line down at the Frozen Fenway games that took place on Jan. 4 and Jan. 11. Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna contacted Smith after skating on a rink with the line in place.

“We worked with the NCAA rules committee last June to get the Look-Up Line down at the Fenway games,” Smith says. “The feedback was all positive. Again, it’s impossible to say whether it’s worked or not. We heard from players and coaches, though, and they said it helped them without changing the way they played.”

In the coming months, Smith says he plans to work with different leagues and organizations to investigate the viability of the line. It’s a cost-effective solution, and it’s not something that requires frequent maintenance. Painting the line when ice goes down is all it takes.

“I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer,” Smith says. “All it costs is buying orange paint instead of white paint when you put the ice down for the first time.”

For young players just moving into bantam levels and others that allow checking, having the Look-Up Line in place as they learn this part of the sport could help them adjust as they advance. Moreover, higher levels of hockey, as witnessed at Fenway Park, can implement the line without altering their game much.

That constant reminder to play more responsibly around the walls will save them or their opponents from a potentially devastating injury.