GOFFSTOWN — Saint Anselm College made NCAA history on Tuesday, becoming the first college or university in the United States to install a “Look-Up Line” on the ice at the Thomas F. Sullivan Arena — a crucial step to reduce catastrophic injury for hockey players.
“For (Saint Anselm) to be the first school in the country to implement the line, that’s a huge deal for us, and it’s a testament to the support we have from the administration here,” said J. Tucker Mullin, a 2013 Saint Anselm alumnus, former member of the college’s hockey team, and recipient of the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award.
Mullin and friend Thomas Smith co-founded the Thomas E. Smith Foundation in 2010. The two met when they were in high school and both playing for the New England Bulldogs youth hockey team in Massachusetts.
Smith suffered two significant spinal cord injuries while playing hockey — one to the cervical region of his spine in August of 2008, and a second to the thoracic region in October of 2009 — that ended his career in the sport.
For two years, Smith was unable to even visit a hockey rink. Eventually, Smith said, he became focused on making the game safer and preventing other players from sustaining the injuries he did.
“Tuck and I… made this bond to one another, that we were going to found a foundation and work together to try to make the game of hockey safer, without affecting the speed, intensity, heritage, or adding any more rules to the game.”
Mullin and Smith worked together for nearly two years on various initiatives on ways to modify the sideboards of hockey rinks to minimize risk for players. In August of 2012, Smith was watching a Red Sox game when he recognized that hockey could have something like a baseball warning track.
“The outfielder was running back for a fly ball, he never looked at the wall, but as soon as he saw the gravel, he put his arms up and he slowed down,” Smith said. He realized a similar cue would be helpful for hockey players approaching the boards.
In their research, Mullin and Smith learned that football, basketball, and competitive swimming had also instituted similar cues for athletes, and that it is the most effective way to create a behavioral instinct within a sport to protect athletes.
“You can’t speak to someone when they’re playing, because the game’s going so fast,” Smith said. “All these markings that you see on the ice are for that visual cueing, because it’s the only behavioral cueing that works when a player’s skating in a game.”
The Look-Up Line is a 40-inch-wide orange line painted around the circumference of a hockey rink. The idea behind the concept is that when players see the line, they know to pick their heads up, minimizing spinal injury.
Smith said that when the top of a player’s head makes contact with the board, the player needs to be moving only 4 mph to suffer a spinal compression.
“If you have your head up, the way the vertebra’s shaped, it’s allowed to absorb the shock, and it kind of acts like a springboard,” Smith said. “If you’re able to protect yourself and you know where you are in space, you’re less likely to get a neck or head injury.”
Smith said the Look-Up Line will help protect players, but not reduce the aggressive nature of the game.
“We still want players to be slammed into the wall,” he said. “Our big thing is we want you to get up. There’s a right way to do it and there’s a wrong way to do it…There is, in my opinion, no excuse for catastrophic injury.”
“As the game has evolved and gotten bigger and faster, we also need to protect our players more,” Mullin added. “That’s what we really see this as — a supplement to what we’ve been taught over the years, and a new way to teach moving forward.”
Smith and Mullin credited Dr. Barth Green of the University of Miami School of Medicine, and especially Dr. Alan Ashare of St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, for their contributions to the Look-Up Line. Ashare started the “Heads Up, Don’t Duck” initiative in 1995 to educate the hockey community about the dangers of head-on collisions.
Within the college, the two also credited president Dr. Steven DiSalvo, class of 1974 alumnus, and hockey booster Tom Bullock, rink manager Ken Perkins, and men’s hockey coach Ed Seney, for their help getting the Look-Up Line installed.
Smith and Mullin are happy that Saint Anselm is first in the NCAA to adopt the Look-Up Line.
“They’re being a leader by example, and folks who don’t have this down…we don’t believe are following best practice,” Smith said. “These people who are waiting and standing back — you’re putting yourself at risk.”
Both are hopeful that their idea will serve to improve the game of hockey overall.
“I believe this game is the greatest game in the world,” Smith said. “It doesn’t have to be like this, with catastrophic injury … There’s never been a time other than now, in the last couple years, where players have been retiring more so because of catastrophic injury … We have to do something, because it’s supposed to be a game that provides so much joy, and yet, it’s providing so much sadness and heartache.”
“This is our responsibility, to not only help those that are similarly situated to Tom, but to prevent that from happening and move forward,” Mullin added. “This is our opportunity to do so.”