By Matt Jenkins
---- — Tom Smith loves the game of hockey. He’s twice felt the pain — both immediate and residual — of having that game taken away from him.
A Swampscott native and Pingree School graduate, Smith is now focused on helping other players avoid major head and spinal cord injuries that could force an outcome similar to his own.
With that in mind — and with the help of a couple friends — he created the Look-Up Line, an orange painted surface that surrounds a rink’s sheet of ice, like a warning track for hockey.
On August 2, 2008, Smith, while playing for the Boston Bulldogs Junior A hockey team, collided with his own goalie and slid head-first into the boards. He dislocated his C-1, C-2, C-5, and C-6 vertebrae.
He was told he’d never walk again, but thanks to rigorous therapy at The Miami Project, a world renowned spinal cord injury research center located in the Lois Pope LIFE Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Smith got back on his feet.
He returned to the ice a little more than a year later, and 14 months after the initial injury Smith was tripped up once again playing hockey and hit the right side of his head against the boards. He suffered a second unrelated spinal cord injury, this time to his T-3 vertabra, and found himself back in a wheelchair.
Since then, Smith has been focused on recovery (he now walks with assistive devices), the Thomas E. Smith Foundation, and a way to make the game of hockey safer.
‘A natural fit’
He believes that the Look-Up Line, which is 40-inches of orange paint, can help prevent serious injuries without interfering with the speed and intensity of the game.
“We were looking to reinvent the wheel,” Smith said. “We tried cushioning the boards. NASCAR put foam behind the concrete after Dale Earnhardt died (at Daytona in 2001), and studies discovered that drivers absorbed less vibration. We tried over 35 different foams, but the puck hit the boards and died.”
Then, while watching a Red Sox game with friend and co-founder Timmy Roberts last year, it came to Smith.
“We were watching an outfielder go back for the ball, and as he was running his cleats went across the gravel (of the warning track) and he put his arm out,” the 24-year-old Smith said. “He knows he’s close to the wall, it’s an obvious line and not a solid object. It’s a natural fit.
“Hockey is the fastest, most intense sport, yet there’s not an indicator for players or officials until they hit a solid object.”
After some testing, including using a stoplight painting pattern of yellow and red, the 40-inch orange Look-Up Line was painted onto the ice at Pingree’s Johnson Rink.
It seems strange to him that nothing like this has been permanently adopted in hockey before.
Smith looked at every other major sport and found boundary restrictions and warnings. The National Football League moved its goalposts back from the goal line to the back of the end zone in 1974; basketball hoops were adjusted to an L-shaped base; and baseball has the warning track. Even swimming pools have lines painted on the bottom to warn swimmers when they’re approaching the wall.
Yet hockey, a game played on ice, had nothing.
“At Pingree, the feedback has been that it makes sense and ‘Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?’,” Smith said.
“A figure skating instructor, Christine Hopkins, called me and said, ‘This is unbelievable for figure skaters. They know where they are on the ice.’ It can be applied for kids just learning to skate, and one of the hardest things is to stick handle with your head up.”
Overall, it took only 61/2 gallons of paint for Pingree to install the Look-Up Line. Smith figures the cost would be minimal, if anything. When rinks repaint, they can simply deduct the extra white paint that they won’t need.
Despite the positive feedback, Smith knows there are still hoops to jump through for certain leagues and levels of hockey to adopt the Look-Up Line. He feels the time is now for the process to begin.
“To me, the problem with the game is that it’s so far behind making any modifications. Why do we have to wait for a paralyzing injury like myself? Let’s take a preventative approach,” Smith said. “This makes sense.
“I still love the game of hockey and don’t want to harness or infringe the speed or intensity. That’s why I’m so passionate about this. This doesn’t take away speed or add confusion; all it does is act as an aid to pick your head up.”