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Safer heads win debate over helmets for hockey coaches

Richard Meryhew

Star Tribune

In all his years of coaching kids hockey, Tom Greene never wore a helmet. As a longtime skater and a former high school hockey player, Greene always figured he was in command on the ice.

When a national hockey organization ran an Internet poll a few years ago asking youth coaches whether they should be required to wear helmets at practices to protect themselves against hard falls and flying pucks, Greene scoffed and voted no. But last month, while coaching his son's mite hockey team in Moorhead, Minn., Greene, 35, caught a skate blade on the ice. He tripped and banged his head. The blow knocked him out, cracked his skull in two places and left him bleeding from his right ear.

Greene's scare is one of several that prompted Minnesota's amateur hockey leaders to approve a rule recently requiring youth coaches to wear helmets for on-ice practices.

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The measure, approved by directors of Minnesota Hockey, which oversees youth programs across the state, takes effect Sept. 1 and affects 8,000 registered coaches.

"We've had too many injuries and too many close calls," said Brad Hewitt, a director who favors the rule. "[The helmet] is not going to catch everything, but it will catch a lot." Just how many coaches have suffered serious injuries over the years because they weren't wearing a helmet isn't known, said Dr. Alan Ashare, safety committee chairman for USA Hockey, the umbrella organization that oversees amateur hockey in the United States.

"If one person dies or falls, that's one too many," said Hal Tearse, a youth hockey coach in Wayzata and chairman of Minnesota Hockey's safety committee.

Tearse, who has long worn a helmet while coaching, said local hockey leaders began considering a helmet rule after Wes Barrette, 70, a popular and longtime coach in St. Paul, died in 1998 after hitting his head on the ice during a practice. Since then, he said, at least four other coaches in the United States and Canada have died after falling to the ice. None wore helmets.

But it wasn't until this month, after a series of recent accidents -- including Greene's spill and the death of a youth hockey coach in Duluth who was struck in the neck by a puck during a father-son game and died even though he was wearing a helmet -- that Minnesota Hockey directors finally took action.

Not everyone sold

While Minnesota Hockey's decision was nearly unanimous, many coaches remain skeptical. As of last week, a survey on the group's website showed that 82 percent of 221 coaches responding to the question of whether coaches should be required to wear helmets on the ice opposed the idea.

"It's not that I'm against a helmet," said Tom Younghans, a former college and professional player who coaches a youth team in Wayzata and doesn't wear a helmet. "But we are adults and we should take personal responsibility. …; I want to have the right to make that decision."

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Said Dan Brausen, a longtime youth hockey coach in Roseville: "We can ride motorcycles in Minnesota without wearing a helmet. Why can't we coach without one?" Steve Brown, a former college player who also played professionally in Europe, said he still prefers not to wear a helmet at practice even though he fell and suffered a concussion last year while coaching his daughter's team in Edina.

Brown said he feels "quite comfortable" skating without a helmet and thinks the rule is overreaching. "I knew what my risks were," he said.

Younghans said he would have liked to have seen more discussion on all those issues before the vote, adding that the final decision was based on a discussion of "the worst three or four scenarios." "It's a scare tactic, an extreme example of what's happening," he said.

Later this summer, USA Hockey directors will vote on a similar measure. If approved, youth coaches in all states will be required to wear helmets on ice. Michigan has had such a requirement since 1999.

"We don't want to be going to funerals for our volunteers," he said. "And the reality is, it's so easy to prevent it from happening. You just do it."

Later this summer, USA Hockey directors will vote on a similar measure. If approved, youth coaches in all states will be required to wear helmets on ice.

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