Hockey isn't new to Fenway Park, but when the game returned there Saturday night to kick off Frozen Fenway, the look of the ice surface itself was one brush stroke different. The traditional lines of red and blue, nearly as essential to hockey as the stick and puck, were accompanied by a foot-wide orange stripe traced into the full perimeter of the sheet and set back 2 feet from the boards.
So, what's in a line, especially one so wide, so orange, so emphatically out-of-the-Crayola box? Most of all, according to its creator, Tom Smith, it's about safety.
Twice rendered paralyzed playing the game he loves, and these days requiring two canes to get around, Smith hopes the orange line he first imagined while watching a Red Sox game nearly two years ago will be permanently adopted as hockey's warning track. Trademarked the "Look-Up Line,'' it will alert players that they are approaching the boards, where bad hits, awkward tumbles, or seemingly harmless slips of the skate can lead to catastrophic injury.
"My fear is that — and I hope this doesn't happen — leagues will wait to implement the idea,'' said Smith, 24, who grew up in Swampscott and played high school hockey at the Pingree School in South Hamilton before suffering his spinal injuries. "We are always a reactive society. Let's be proactive. I don't want someone getting seriously hurt like I did — like Travis Roy did, like Matty Brown did — to make this happen.
"Let's do it. I mean, we're only putting down some paint.''
Like Smith, Roy, a freshman at Boston University, and Brown, a sophomore at Norwood High, both suffered severe spinal injuries in horrific crashes into the boards. Smith in August 2008 suffered his first paralyzing injury when flying headfirst into the boards while playing in a game with the Boston Bulldogs junior team. After making a dramatic recovery, regaining full use of all his limbs, he returned to the Bulldogs' left wing and in October 2009 again tumbled badly into the boards during practice, chipping one of his lower vertebra and leaving him today with only partial use of his legs.
"My first injury — what they called an internal decapitation — was to the top of my neck,'' recounted Smith, who spent some four months at the renowned Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to regain full mobility from that accident. "The second injury, it was lower, between my shoulder blades. We had, I think, a total of eight opinions, and the doctors ended up saying I had a better chance of winning the lottery five times in a row than having two separate injuries that were 110 percent unrelated.''
Over the four-plus years since that second accident, Smith founded a charitable foundation (justcureparalysis.org) and also began tinkering with ways to make hockey safer. He spent many months attempting to replicate a NASCAR-like cushioning of the walls, hoping to use foam materials to better absorb the force of a player crashing into the wall. But that idea never came to fruition. Pucks shot into the foam-cushioned boards went dead.
"There was no point in moving forward,'' recalled Smith, who since his Pingree days has furthered his education with online courses offered by UCLA and Salem State University. "It didn't preserve the speed, intensity, rules, or heritage of the game. That's always been my measure. But it altered the game. The puck literally didn't bounce.''
It was only weeks later when Smith, thumbing through the results of those failed tests while watching the Red Sox on TV, came up with his orange line idea. As an outfielder tracked a fly ball toward the Green Monster, Smith saw him slow down and raise an arm in protection the moment his foot hit the warning track. The simple action, witnessed in virtually every Major League Baseball game, convinced Smith that the same sort of warning system could be worked into an ice sheet.
Ergo, the orange line. It took some minor tinkering, but Smith settled on one wide band of orange, ideally a full 40 inches, snugged up against the boards like a giant ribbon. The Pingree School quickly adopted it, followed soon by another rink in Wheeling, W.Va., where a couple of Smith's pals, both ex-players, are devoted to amateur hockey programs.
"We have not had one person say anything negative about it,'' said Smith. "The biggest compliment we didn't see coming — which has been universal at Pingree — players are now more cautious about hitting players from behind because they now have depth perception. They know where they are, with a player in front of them, and if they hit them inside that line they can do serious bodily harm.''
The look of Smith's orange Look-Up Line, but not its intent, was altered slightly for the games at Fenway, which began with a Holy Cross-Bentley matchup Saturday night. Rather than a solid 40-inch band abutting the full circuit of boards, it was shrunk to 12 inches in width, backed a full 2 feet off the wall.
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who helped coax the NCAA rules committee to include the line as an experiment during Frozen Fenway, left it to the tournament's ice-making crew to figure how best the line should be implemented.
"The last time we did this in 2012, we had 60 degree temperatures and painted lines bled a little bit,'' noted Bertagna, whose Hockey East games at Fenway will be played Jan. 4 and 11. "There were concerns about colors attracting sun, absorbing heat. They do have concerns about losing ice along the boards anyway, and if there is color there . . . so they came up with an alternative.''
Bertagna was eager to see how, or if, players alter their play or mind-set with a warning track present. Neither Hockey East nor the college game at large have anywhere near the number of games or the amount of severe collisions and tumbles that make up the NHL. But the game at all levels is inherently risky. Virtually everyone connected to the game is always looking at measures to improve player safety.
"I don't know if we have the cultural issue [perceived in the NHL], but we are one bad hit away from being a news story ourselves,'' said Bertagna, the ex-Harvard netminder. "But we all know what the cost can be if people are reckless along the boards.''
Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's director of player safety, also said he is interested in the Look-Up Line's rollout. The concept has been bandied about for years, he said, and he grew up playing box lacrosse, the indoor game that is played on ice-free rinks, boards and all. The box lacrosse fields of his youth had precisely such a warning track, a wide white stripe, painted around the full perimeter of the rink. He is well aware of the risks of hits into the boards.
"Yeah, it's devastating,'' he said, talking as a parent of a young boy who plays the game. "I know from just my days skating at BU in my offseasons, the whole Travis Roy story as well. I think for anyone playing or for anyone who cares about the game or cares about people in the game, it's huge . . . it's the worst fear.
"The line is definitely an interesting concept. I would like to see how it works, if it indeed works. I think it's the right question to be asking right now, and I am always supportive of new ideas and new initiatives.''
Smith, who swims five days a week these days to keep in shape, hoping that a cure for his paralysis soon will be discovered, will be at Fenway for most of the tournament. Holy Cross was one of the schools, he said, that showed some interest in his game during his junior days. His motivating force to return from his first injury was to earn a scholarship, play in Division 1 or 3. It took him more than a year after his second injury to summon the will to go back inside a rink.
"I just didn't feel comfortable going in at first,'' he said. "So when I accepted my injury — which I don't know if I ever fully will, but I guess I came to terms with it — I wanted to make the game of hockey safer.''