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In hockey, the fastest-paced sport of the four major league sports, players fly across the ice in pursuit of a small black puck.
Thomas Smith, a former amateur hockey player, wants to make the game safer for players by creating a visual warning that would alert players they are getting close to the boards.
He calls it the “Look-Up Line” — a 40-inch-wide bright orange line that surrounds the perimeter of the rink.
Smith was inspired to create the Look-Up Line because of a spinal cord injury he sustained when he crashed headfirst into the boards during a junior hockey tournament before college.
He recovered after months of rehabilitation, and played hockey again. However, he sustained another spinal injury when he crashed into the boards a second time.
“October 1, 2009, was a tough day because it was in a practice,” Smith told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “It was a Thursday and I was skating around the net, and I lost my edge. It’s literally happened to me 10,000 times.”
After the second accident, Smith was in a wheelchair for 27 months. He walks with two canes now.
“It really took me about a year to go back into a hockey rink comfortably,” he said. “Literally [I] walk in and [I'm] almost sick.”
Smith says most other sports warn players that they are about to hit a solid object, but hockey gives no warning.
The line has been used on the ice at Frozen Fenway, an annual event at Fenway Park in Boston, in which the ballpark is transformed into an ice rink for high school and college hockey games.
“The biggest feedback that we’ve gotten is that players know where they are in space when chasing after another player,” he said. “They are telling us that they have depth perception in space and to know, ‘If I hit a player inside that line, I can do serious bodily harm.’”
Smith is hopeful that the Look-Up Line will be adopted in professional and amateur hockey.
“I believe we have an opportunity to take a preventative approach rather than wait until someone gets killed or another person gets paralyzed, or another person has to give up hockey because of a head injury,” Smith said. “We really think we have something special here.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Those frigid temperatures across the country have made outdoor sports a challenge. There was yesterday's football game in Wisconsin, the National Hockey League's Winter Classic, six outdoor stadium games, thousands attending, and then there's frozen Fenway.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here's a chance at (unintelligible) Gaudreau trying to sneak around, and he scores.
YOUNG: That's Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau scoring the winning goal against Notre Dame this weekend in the Frozen Fenway, the annual series of college games on the field at Boston's beloved baseball shrine, Fenway Park. This year with the cold there were cracks in the ice and something else painted on the ice, a 40-inch-wide orange line around the rink just inside the boards.
It's the idea of 24-year-old Thomas Smith, a former amateur player who twice ran into those boards with devastating effect. He's partly paralyzed. He walks with the help of two canes. And he now runs the Thomas E. Smith Foundation, which aims to cure paralysis, and he's also trying to make hockey safer with something he's calling the Look-Up Line. Thomas, welcome.
THOMAS SMITH: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: How'd you come up with the idea of this?
SMITH: Well, when we founded the foundation, we always - it was very important to us to do better. I think it's very easy to think cookie-cutter with nonprofits and having like your stereotypical galas and your golf tournaments. So one of our main goals was how can we make the game safer, prevent the injury that I sustained and that others sustained, head and neck injuries, from happening without affecting the speed, intensity, heritage or adding any more rules to the game.
So after - my second accident was October 1, 2009, and it really took me about a year to be able to go back into a hockey rink comfortably.
YOUNG: Yes, it was, what, too overwhelming, too...
SMITH: It's just, it's an eerie feeling, and you have a pit in your stomach. And it's - literally you walk in and you're almost sick. And it's a mix of emotions - it's a mix of - you know, it caused you heartache and sadness, it caused your family - because paralysis, it affects one person, and it's the physicality of one person, but I'd say it's equally as mentally as it is physical, and it's a multitude of people.
YOUNG: Well, given how powerful this still is for you, I hesitate to ask, but can you describe not just one but the two crashes that you took into the boards? This was in junior hockey.
SMITH: Yeah, sure. Well, I graduated from high school in June of 2008, and it was my goal to be hopefully Division 1, but at the very least a Division 3 hockey player. We weren't sure at what level I would play at. Whatever level would've been an accomplishment for me.
I was in my second tournament. It was August 2, 2008. I'd signed with the Boston Junior A Bulldogs. I was being looked at by Yale University, University of Vermont, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross and about 10 Division 3 teams. So it was the last period of our last game, and a couple of the division scouts were at the game. So I was skating my hardest.
And it was the third period of the game, about five minutes left, and I was skating down an opposing player that was going down on a breakaway. And as he was getting ready to shoot the puck, the goalie came out. And as he did so, I caught up to the player, and then the three of us met. And to avoid the collision, I tried to jump over the goalie.
And as I did so, my skates hit his helmet, and I went, traveled about six feet airborne, head-first into the boards.
YOUNG: Oh boy.
SMITH: And I was diagnosed with being internally decapitated with four (unintelligible) dislocations in the cervical area, so...
YOUNG: Oh, wait a second, just the phrase internally decapitated, this is, like, right at the top of your spine.
SMITH: Yeah, so it's in essence that everything was shifted over. Thank God I was an athlete, and you know, the muscles and everything were strong enough to keep everything in place, and there was no laceration or cutting of the spinal cord, but everything had shifted.
YOUNG: Well, and then you had this miraculous recovery, and you go back to the Bulldogs in 2009, a year later, and you go into the boards again.
SMITH: Yes, when I went to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and had some of the best doctors in the world, and when we determined that I was no more susceptible than the average human to get hurt again, that was when I was comfortable to go back. My parents were comfortable with letting me go back, and the doctors were comfortable with signing off.
So October 1, 2009 was a tough day because it was in a practice. It was a Thursday. And I was skating around the net, and I lost my edge.
YOUNG: You lost your - literally lost your edge, just went into the boards.
SMITH: Yeah, it's happened to me 10,000 times.
YOUNG: But this time also devastating, a lower accident between your shoulder blades. Let's just say you are - you know, you look tremendously fit, terrific, but you are walking with two canes now.
SMITH: Yeah, after that accident I was in a wheelchair for 27 months. I had injured a thoracic vertebrae. I had chipped a piece of bone off it. And, you know, when I got to the hospital, the initial reaction was, oh my goodness, Tom shouldn't have gone back, someone screwed up, he...
YOUNG: How could this happen? I mean, the odds of this happening, yeah.
SMITH: Exactly, and come to find out we've gotten over eight different opinions, and basically all the doctors say I had a better chance of winning the lottery five times in a row than having two separate injuries, totally unrelated. So, you know, getting back to where we are with this line, that really geared my life towards how can I be a productive member of society without hockey but make the game of hockey safer without harnessing its speed, intensity, infringing upon the heritage or adding any more rules to the game.
YOUNG: Thomas Smith, former amateur hockey player, partly paralyzed by the game. We'll hear the idea he's come up with after the break. And there are plenty of reasons to think about it. Here's just a few: Boston University's Travis Roy, paralyzed in 2010 after he crashed into the boards; Detroit's Matt Sorisho, 17, paralyzed in October; Pittsburgh native Kevin Kenny, spinal cord injury in November.
You may have seen Thomas's Heads-up Line this weekend, featured at the Fenway Frozen. That was broadcast. What'd you think? Let us know at hereandnow.org. More in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we've been talking about a way to make hockey safer. When hockey great Bobby Orr was on, he argued for keeping the so-called enforcers, these are the players he says take on the bullies in the game, protect players that the bullies are targeting. But others say those enforcers gin up the fighting.
There have also been recent rules changes. You can't take your helmet off before a fight. So now some of the players are kindly taking each other's helmets off before fighting. There was a change in the lines that was supposed to slow down the game. But we've been talking to Thomas Smith, a former high school and amateur hockey player, who has another idea: painting a new line in.
He calls it the Look-Up Line, a 40-inch-wide orange ribbon painted on the ice all the way around the rink to keep players from running into the boards. His own encounters with the boards left his partially paralyzed. He walks with two canes. He now runs the Thomas Smith Foundation, working toward curing paralysis, and he wants NHL officials to take up his Look-Up Line to prevent paralysis.
And Thomas, before you came up with it, you tried a lot of things. Take us through.
SMITH: A good friend of mine was a NASCAR fan. So I tried to adopt a similar I guess concept that NASCAR adopted after Dale Earnhardt Senior got hurt at the Daytona 500 in 2001, which was they added a springboard and a foam behind the framework in the outer board in NASCAR when a driver (unintelligible) thus reducing head and neck injury.
So what I tried to do was take foam, and I was dealing with an old-timer in northern Maine who was giving me his old boat foam, his excess boat foam, and what I tried to do was put the foam behind the boards because in my head I said OK, if it works for NASCAR, what's to say it can't work for players.
The problem was we had a player shoot pucks against the foam each time, and the problem was as soon as the puck hit, it died.
YOUNG: No caroming off the boards, which doesn't work in hockey.
SMITH: Yeah, so it was like OK, we need to take a step back. And in August of 2012, I was going over the paperwork that we had been working on for the past seven months, and I was watching a Red Sox game. And it was late in the game, and the outfielder, the Red Sox outfielder, went back for a fly ball. And he was running towards the Green Monster, but he never looked at the Green Monster. He had his...
YOUNG: The Green Monster, the big wall in Fenway.
SMITH: Yeah, the big wall in left field. And as he was tracking the ball, he never looked at it, but as soon as his cleats went across the warning track, he put his arm out, and he slowed down.
YOUNG: Because there was a warning track that told him he was going to hit the wall.
YOUNG: And you think what about a warning in hockey.
SMITH: Yes, it was, you know, light bulbs started going off, and I immediately got onto the computer, and we started to look at all sports. Football, in 1974, the NFL moved the goalpost back from the goal line to the end of the end zone, 10 yards back. Players and coaches and media are also supposed to stand five yards back. They have a rectangular box on the sideline where they're supposed to stand five yards back.
Basketball, players, coaches and fans are supposed to sit three to five feet back, and they have that L-shaped hoop in basketball so the post is about five feet set back from the perimeter line, and then the hoop hangs over just beyond the perimeter line. And I do aquatic therapy every day.
YOUNG: In a pool.
SMITH: Yeah, in an Olympic-sized pool. So I remember swimming soon after we thought of this idea, and there's the black line at the bottom of each pool. So I'm looking down, and that line stops roughly six and a half feet before the end wall.
YOUNG: Before the wall.
SMITH: It really just got me asking the question hockey, being the fastest out of all the four major sports, and the object that we're playing with is on the ice, so inherently you're going to get caught with your head down, yet you don't know when you're going out of bounds, you're going to hit the boards, until you actually hit the board.
YOUNG: So that's where the idea came from. You took it to the league. Eyes lit up. And you've gotten to see it in play, this orange ribbon around the perimeter of the ice before the boards. Is it working?
SMITH: It is. So it's in the Pingree School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and it's been played on by a few teams at Fenway. But the biggest feedback that we've gotten is that players know where they are in space when going in or chasing after a player. When they're chasing another player into the boards, they are now telling us that they have depth perception in space and to know OK, if I hit a player from behind, inside that line, I can do serious bodily harm.
YOUNG: They're telling you that? Because you know the cynics would say when it comes to hockey that's the point, that the players want to hit other players into the boards, that no orange ribbon line is going to stop them from doing that.
SMITH: Sure, I understand that, but I also would argue that no one wants to put an opposing player in a wheelchair and ruin their life forever. I understand it's a physical game. I liked to hit people when I played. But I'm a firm believer that no one wants to debilitate someone permanently.
YOUNG: And so you're hearing this. Another question might be even if they slowed down, is that enough to stop - you know, is two feet in from the wall, you know, a warning track, enough to really slow it down enough to prevent serious injury?
SMITH: Yeah, so our line is 40 inches, and we believe it is because it's as simple as someone picking their head up, putting their arms up, making that little bodily adjustment that could save their life. And the beauty of this idea is that it doesn't affect the speed, intensity, heritage of the game or add any more rules, but it doesn't cost anything because it's simple paint.
So you substitute the white paint that would've been, you know, in the 40 inches and now replace it with the orange paint. So it's cost-effective. You're not harnessing anything to do with the game. And now you're allowing players to know where they are in space. We need to do something. There's no denying that players are getting bigger, stronger and faster. But what are we doing in the architectural framework of the game to protect those players because it's only going to keep getting faster.
So we need to do something because what we do know is the current system is not working.
YOUNG: You know, I look at you, and I see your passion, and still you're - the strength emanating from you. But I know you're going to get up from that chair and walk away on those two canes. Does this give you some sense of, well, at least something came from my injury?
SMITH: You know, that's a funny question. It's tough for me to say that I'm happy the injury happened because I'm absolutely not. But I think my purpose in society, rather than - because I didn't have a sense of community service before. I thought I was solely a hockey player.
But now, you know, I'm running a nonprofit foundation and, you know, trying to make the game safer for all ages, anywhere from the NHL to USA Hockey. So I'm very comfortable with my mission in life, just as comfortable as I was when I played, absolutely.
YOUNG: You're trying to prevent injury, but you're convinced you're going to cure your own.
SMITH: Yeah, I am. I am going to leave these (unintelligible) someday, but...
YOUNG: The loss of the poles, the...
SMITH: Yeah, but, you know, my big thing is I believe we have an opportunity to take a preventative approach rather than wait until either someone gets killed or another person gets paralyzed, or another person has to give up hockey because of a head injury. And then we take a reactive approach, and it's like oh, well, we should've done this before. No, we have an opportunity, anywhere from the NHL to USA Hockey, to lead by example for the world.
And that's all I'm asking, is for league officials to meet with us, just so we can go over this idea. We really think we have something special here.
YOUNG: That's Thomas Smith, founder of the Thomas E. Smith Charitable Foundation. His website is justcureparalysis.org, and he's also the creator of the Look-Up Line, new big orange line being tested on the ice to at least players a heads-up that they're near that wall. Thomas, thanks so much and best of luck to you.
SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.
YOUNG: So we can't see the downside to this. Can you? Hockey players, parents, let us hear your thoughts on the Look-Up Line or other suggestions. Now some youth leagues have the word stop in big letters on the backs of uniforms so players will think twice before hitting someone from behind. Your suggestions, something you've seen work, at hereandnow.org you can leave a comment with this story, or you can tweet us @hereandnow. I'm @hereandnowrobin. Love to hear from you. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.