Trent Borgardt said he'd never had a major injury before in his 13 years of hockey, though he also doesn't count a separated shoulder during his younger years. "That's not even that big a deal," he said. He's a hockey player, after all.
After getting tripped up by a Waupaca defender Nov. 27 and falling to the ice, the junior Waukesha Wings player wasn't terribly concerned. He got to his feet and skated off to the locker room, with the second intermission under way. Even with tingling sensation in his finger tips and limited mobility in his arms, he didn't expect anything close to the worst.
"The trainer did some tests and he didn't think it was anything major at first - he thought it might be muscle pain," Borgardt said. "I walked out of the rink, sat in the car for 30 to 45 minutes and walked into the hospital. We were sitting in that room talking about what we were going to eat after; I was so hungry."
But after two sets of X-rays, doctors informed Borgardt he had a broken neck,specifically a fracture in one side of his cervical vertebra 6. He left the hospital in a neck brace and a feeling that he had really dodged a bullet.
"If I had made a wrong movement, I could have tweaked the spinal cord and lost feeling (permanently)," Borgardt said. "It was just one of those freak accidents where they hit me just right."
Remarkably, Borgardt made it back on the ice before the season was over, playing in the Waukesha Wings' 2-1 playoff loss to Stoughton. In a year where two Minnesota prep players have sustained paralysis from injuries in hockey games, Borgardt counts himself as extremely lucky.
Anxious for change
Kathryn Borgardt admitted it was excruciating to watch.
"I could not even stand it, I was very nervous," she said of watching her son return to the ice. "I talked to our physician for a very long time, and he kept reassuring me that he would be OK. He did stay out of the corners, and the coaches didn't play him the entire third period because the game was kind of getting chippy and people were hitting each other, and they didn't want to put pressure on him to make him feel like he had to perform.
"I was just very glad to see him out there because he could have ended up like Jack (Jablonski, one of the Minnesota teens). Doctors said he was very lucky not to be paralyzed. He said he wasn't nervous, and he looked good. I was very nervous."
Kathryn, a nurse, has become very familiar with the story of 16-year-old Jablonski and 18-year-old Jenna Privette, two Minneapolis-area hockey players who incurred neck injuries in games this season that left them paralyzed.
Though there is some dispute as to the circumstances leading into Privette's injury, Jablonski was checked from behind into the boards, leading to an increased call for safety in the state and beyond. Count Kathryn among those pushing for changes, including making all checks from behind a major penalty instead of a 2-minute minor.
"If a kid's sitting there a long time (in the penalty box), they're really hesitant to do it again," Kathryn said. "Two minutes, and they're still hot headed. It's just not enough time."
She also feels longer suspensions need to be issued to repeat offenders and better checking practices need to be taught at the lower level.
"I don't think there's enough emphasis on checking at the youth level," she said, noting that most players now learn that skill at the bantam level, around eighth grade, with checking disallowed entirely at lower levels. "They get to an age where they're older and now they have the hormones flying through, and now they're checking. It's not teaching good habits. Football players are hitting in third and fourth grade, and that stuff becomes a habit when you get to the high-school level."
Eyes on Minnesota
Many states, including Wisconsin, are closely following the new rules Minnesota has enacted to counteract dangerous play.
According to Tom Shafranski, the hockey contact at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the National Federation of High Schools approved an experiment for the Minnesota State High School League taking minor penalties out of the equation for checks from behind.
"Ever since the beginning of the checking from behind regulation, the WIAA has instructed school administrators, coaches and officials there will be zero tolerance for these aggressive penalties and have directed officials to assess the most severe penalty available whenever these penalties result in a student-athlete going head first into the boards or the goal,"Shafranski said. "In addition, our office has always supported an official's calls of these penalties by contacting a school's administration whenever a player from their hockey program has received a game disqualification penalty for any reason."
Shafranski also said educational materials have been distributed to school administrators, and he said the NFHS will review the information gathered from Minnesota and decide whether to strengthen the language in its national rule book. "I do anticipate this or other stronger checking from behind/boarding/contact to the head language being adopted by the NFHS Rules Committee for implementation by all states next year," Shafranski said.
The icy road back
Trent was cleared to start taking the neck brace off at home after four weeks and discarded the brace entirely after eight weeks. Four weeks later, he was back doing workouts and eventually found his way back onto the ice.
He'll still have a chance to play with the Waukesha co-op next year, a new home for Trent and fellow Pewaukee High School players Doug DeVoe, Kiernan Moore and Brennan Burg. As part of a co-op with St. John's Northwestern Military Academy and several other schools last winter, Borgardt's team went winless. This year, the Wings went 13-9-1, and Trent was set to play on a top line with DeVoe and All-State player Zed Dietrich.
"We played the Wings last year, and they were very good, so I knew it was going to be a great switch," Borgardt said.
He considers his own fall on a hit from behind to be an accident, but he does see the need to curtail certain behaviors on the ice.
"It seems like the game the past year has gotten a little dirtier," he said. "It seems like more kids are out there for the hitting and quite possibly trying to hurt people rather than play the game and get points. It's fun to throw a hit every once in a while, but it gets to a point where kids are intentionally trying to injure someone. It could definitely be cracked down on a little more."