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Making a Heads-Up Play

By Jamie MacDonald, Special to Mass Hockey, 10/22/14, 3:00PM EDT


The Look-Up Line and Heads-Up Hockey have become two tools for increased player safety and awareness

Thomas Smith's goal is to have the Look-Up Line installed at 50 percent of rinks around the country this year.

In this case, a bright orange, 40-inch ring around a rink may grow to encircle the country. At least that's what Thomas Smith is hoping with the driving force behind the Look-Up Line. Smith, then a budding prep hockey star, saw his bright future cut short by a second paralyzing on-ice accident on Oct. 1, 2009. To some degree, he has been working to make the game safer since.

Now 25, Smith once spent more than a year amassing 35 prototypes for g-force-reducing boards systems before turning his attention to the Look-Up Line as a much less expensive approach that was as simple as it was inspired.

"Inherently, we’re going to get caught with our heads down because we’re going to be looking down at the puck," said Smith, who now walks with two canes. "It’s, like, Why isn’t there a warning track?"

That warning track automatically reminds players to be aware they are near the boards – whether to be a little more aware in that space or to, in the words of the USA Hockey initiative, "keep your head up, don't duck" in the event of a possible impact with the boards.

Less than 18 months after the first Look-Up Line was implemented at the Pingree School, Smith's high school alma mater, he estimates there are now more than 225 rinks in the United States with a Look-Up Line, but his ambitions are far greater. Over the next 18 months, Smith said he wants to see at least 50 percent of the country's rinks with the Look-Up Line.

Keep your head up, don't duck.

Smith's passion for the project is obvious (you can learn more here at Smith’s website:, and it has certainly caught the attention of USA Hockey.

“My first thought was this is a very simple but ingenious safety measure that we certainly need to explore," said USA Hockey Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Stuart. "I think everybody was interested. But, just like the NCAA, USA Hockey decided to allow it, not recommend it or mandate it."

USA Hockey has since appointed a taskforce, with Dr. Stuart as its chair, to further study the Look-Up Line. That work will include on-ice experiments, with and without the line, that employ eye-tracking systems and sophisticated video analysis to help answer questions and concerns.

"People have their opinions, and we have to respect them," said Stuart. "I am intrigued and in favor of every single safety measure in the sport of ice hockey that anyone proposes. However, it needs to be carefully vetted, it needs to be studied, and we have to strive for some type of validation."

For years, Stuart has advocated for changes in the game to make it safer, and he sees the Look-Up Line continuing to gain momentum in the near future.

"I think that the biggest value is it provides kind of a unique educational opportunity for our 'Heads Up, Don't Duck,' our mutual respect and our sportsmanship [efforts]," he said. "With the Look-Up Line out there, coaches and parents and players will be aware that, Hey, there is potential for catastrophic injury near the boards. The Look-Up Line is not supplanting 'Heads Up, Don’t Duck.' It’s just a way of kind of accentuating it because people will be more aware of the proximity of the boards. Can it reduce the risk of injury? I hope so."

And, clearly, so does Smith.

“We don’t want to change the game, we just want to make it better," he said. "I was forced to retire when it wasn’t my time, and that’s something that is bothersome to me every day. And I don’t wish anyone to go through that. We can do better is the bottom line. Having the Look-Up Line down, you are doing better, you are contributing to this cultural change that we’re trying to accomplish."