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After Thomas Smith suffered his second paralyzing accident while playing hockey, he recalled spine specialist Barth Green telling him, "You had a better chance of winning the lottery five times in a row than having two separate accidents, totally unrelated."

Aug. 2, 2008, Smith, then 19, suffered his first catastrophic injury when he went headfirst into the boards while trying to avoid a collision. Partially paralyzed, Smith made what was considered a remarkable recovery at the Miami Project. He was walking in April and cleared to resume playing hockey May 10.

"Five doctors who studied my case signed off on it," he said.

Colleges again were recruiting him, and Smith thought his career was back on course. But Oct. 2, 2009, he was tripped and again hit the boards. His career was over.

"As soon as I hit the boards, I knew I was paralyzed," he said. "I remember thinking I should have never come back. Somebody screwed up."

He spent 27 months in a wheelchair before being able to walk again. Today he is considered partially paralyzed but can walk with the aid of two canes.

"For as unlucky as I was, I was extremely lucky that I didn't sever my spinal cord," Smith said.

The Boston Bruins held a fundraiser for Smith in 2010, and he decided to do whatever he could to make a game he loves less dangerous.

He runs a foundation championing the cause of painting a "Look-Up Line" near the boards in every hockey rink.

Under Smith's plan, an orange warning track with a width of 40 inches would extend all the way around the boards. The idea is to help players know when they are in a dangerous area.

"I don't see any negative to this at all," New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider said. "I think NHL players have a feel for where they are on the ice, but this could be helpful for younger players learning where they are in space."

The Look-Up Line gets its name because it reminds players to get their head up as soon as they see they're in the area. It's also supposed to remind players to be careful how they hit players there.

However, Smith said there were no plans to add an officiating component to the line, such as turning the warning track into a no-hitting zone.

Smith estimated 225 rinks in 27 states would have the lines by Oct. 1. The safety measure is low cost because it takes about 6 or 7 gallons of paint. Smith estimated the cost at $500, plus labor.

USA Hockey has not endorsed the plan, mostly because it wants to study it.

"We are interested in any idea that can improve the health and safety of our hockey community, and this is a very intriguing safety measure," said Michael Stuart, USA Hockey's chief medical officer. "The way to look at it is: It may seem ingenious, but we need to study it to demonstrate it is actually effective."

USA Hockey has appointed a task force.

"It's been compared to a warning track in baseball," Stuart said. "But there is a difference, because there is also a tactile response in baseball. A player can tell he is running from grass onto cinder."

Smith embraced the line after first investigating whether boards could be made out of a more forgiving material. He was hoping to develop boards with spring to them after watching how NASCAR has made tracks safer.

The problem: There was no guarantee the springier boards would make a difference, and the installation cost would be $75,000 to $100,000.

Smith got the idea for the line while watching a player look down to see where the warning track was during a Boston Red Sox game. He watched the "visual cuing" in football and basketball before deciding a warning track in hockey might work even if players couldn't feel it under their feet.

Smith tried and rejected other colors before settling on orange because it is associated with safety.

He tested to make sure the line caused no problems for television and the puck could be seen well on the orange surface. The line passed those tests.

Studying the effectiveness of the line won't be easy, Stuart said, "because, thank goodness, these types of injuries are rare.

"But preventing one makes any safety measure worthwhile." 

August 28, 2014


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