High school ice hockey players will face stiffer penalties next season for boarding and checking from behind.

In an effort to reduce the risk of injury, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) announced the changes Wednesday morning, raising the penalty for either infraction to an automatic five-minute major.

“If the federation implements a rule, very rarely in any of our sports do we sway from that rule,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, the state’s governing body for interscholastic competition. “This is another step to make the sport safer. We support that.”

Previously, players judged guilty of either boarding or checking from behind were given two-minute minor penalties (unless the act was considered flagrant), but checking from behind also carried with it a 10-minute misconduct, meaning the player could not re-enter the game during that stretch but his or her team could skate at full strength.

Now such violations will penalize both team and player for five minutes. Any flagrant boarding call or check that causes a player to crash headfirst into the boards will require at least a major and either a misconduct or a game disqualification, subject to referee discretion.

“Increasing the first level of penalty for boarding should act as a deterrent when combined with proper teaching and education,” said Dan Schuster, NFHS spokesman, in a prepared statement. “Boarding is one of the most dangerous plays in the sport, and a flagrant boarding act can carry severe consequences to participants and must be accompanied with stiff penalties.”

The push to avoid such hits gained traction after a Minnesota teenager, Jack Jablonski, was paralyzed by a check from behind during a holiday tournament in December of 2011. Within days of his injury, Minnesota approved the tougher rules that will spread to the rest of the nation next year.

Checking from behind in open ice will now be an automatic major (five minutes) instead of a minor (two minutes) and misconduct (10 minutes, for the player only).

Local coaches had mixed reactions to the new rules. The main concern among those in opposition was the additional pressure it puts on referees in a tightly-contested game. “The better officials are very understanding,” said Norm Gagne, entering his seventh season as head coach of boys’ ice hockey in Scarborough and 40th in the high school ranks, having also coached at Gardiner, Waterville, Gorham and Lewiston. “Most of them have played and they have a good feeling for what is flagrant and what isn’t. Others, you just hit a guy and they’ll automatically (call a penalty). It’s all in who you get.”

Bob Mills, head coach of the combined Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete girls’ team, said he welcomes the more stringent penalties.

“Especially for girls’ hockey in Maine, the vast majority of players are not going to play in college but they’ve got a lifetime of good health to look forward to,” he said. “So any rule changes that help to better keep players safe I’m in favor of.”

Rich Reissfelder, head boys coach at Biddeford, said boarding can be a difficult call because a player can slip and fall while engaged with an opponent. Five minutes is a long time to be down a skater.

“Hopefully it makes it safer,” he said. “I mean, heck, my kids play. I don’t want them getting hurt. But definitely it will be a burden on the referee. In a close game, it could easily sway the outcome.”

Any game disqualification means a player would have to sit out the next game as well, and subsequent ejections lead to longer suspensions.

“We only play 18 games, so to take a kid away on a borderline call, I don’t know,” Gagne said. “Don’t get me wrong. Some are deserving. They’re teenagers and they do some dumb things. But I’d rather see a major (and no ejection), unless he’s hurt somebody.”

Teaching proper techniques and appropriate situations for checking will take on even more importance, Gagne said. He tells his players not to check an opponent when they can see numerals on the back of his jersey. He also cautions them against hitting vulnerable players skating through open ice with their head down, looking for the puck.

“I know my kids wouldn’t like it done to them,” Gagne said. “Hey, we’re not out here to hurt somebody. We’re out for fun and enjoyment.”

According to a 2012-13 NFHS survey, interscholastic ice hockey is played in 17 states by more than 35,000 boys and nearly 9,500 girls. In Maine that winter, the numbers were 1,179 boys and 383 girls.

“I know there’s a lot of detractors, particularly among the boys’ coaches,” Mills said. “But I don’t see why anybody would be opposed to these rule changes. Really, I think a boarding or a checking from behind penalty should be a major. It shouldn’t be the same as a hooking or a tripping. My thought is, Why wasn’t this implemented years ago?”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or[email protected]Twitter: GlennJordanPPH