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Globe West High school hockey

Safety rules on the ice this season

Threat of concussions drawing new focus

Needham High teammates Timmy Parlato (left) and Chris Joyce compare notes during practice, with the team in agreement on the season's big goal: winning the Super 8 postseason tournament. Needham High teammates Timmy Parlato (left) and Chris Joyce compare notes during practice, with the team in agreement on the season's big goal: winning the Super 8 postseason tournament. (Jon Mahoney for The Boston Globe)
By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2010

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Timmy Parlato saw the hulking 6-foot-3 defenseman bearing down on him at full speed. The Needham High skater could have avoided a collision with a quick move either way.

But Parlato, all of 5-4, 135 pounds, does not like avoiding contact, and he absorbed the blow, along with a few others in last season’s nonleague matchup against a team from Connecticut. But he dished out a few too, prompting the Hamden High School coach to tell him afterward, with a smile, that he was the most hated player on the ice. “A lot of guys go after Timmy and like to run him,” said Needham High head coach Bill Guisti. “He’s the smallest player on the team, guys go after him. We want him to try to protect himself and be careful.’’

Guisti and his assistant coaches, as well Parlato’s father, have been trying to help the young forward recognize the importance of using his vision to protect himself on the ice. After suffering a concussion playing bantam hockey, and watching his older brother, Danny, deal with a couple of his own, safety has become a top concern.

“If I’m going into the boards,’’ Parlato said, and a rival skater is “coming in following me, I usually forget about the puck and look after myself. The puck is second.

“Recently, I’ve been pretty good at avoiding those situations.’’

With increased attention on keeping players safe and avoiding dangerous head injuries, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association mandated that all coaches take a concussion-education course before the start of the winter season. The course lasted just 20 minutes, but the MIAA wanted to ensure that athletes receive the attention they need.

“Hopefully, the players realize that hits to the head are dangerous,’’ said Waltham High coach John Maguire, a former president of the state hockey coaches association. “Certainly there’s a good chance the number of concussions is going to be diagnosed more properly and the kids are going to miss more games because of that, to err on the side of caution.’’

Parlato’s father, Tommy, who skated on the Robbie Ftorek-fueled Needham Rockets squads that won back-to-back state titles in 1969 and 1970, has written letters to USA Hockey pleading that any player caught hitting from behind, and their coach, should be suspended.

“It’s a concern when you have smaller players,’’ said the elder Parlato, who has coached youth hockey in Needham for 40 years and reprimands any player on his team that is serving up dicey hits.

He’s had to endure plenty of nervous moments watching his sons, and daughter Sandra, who won a state title with the Needham High girls’ squad in 2002, engage in dangerous contact. He also knows Timmy’s size leaves him in a vulnerable position.

“The trouble with all these concussions is that they’re likely to cause early onset dementia when they’re 45 or 50 years old,’’ he noted. “We want players to play clean. You don’t need to put someone in a wheelchair for the rest of their life. You can play the game hard and clean at the same time.’’

In his sixth year back in Needham (he also coached the Rockets from 1992 to 2000, followed by a four-year stint at Walpole High), Guisti has witnessed a number of painful collisions, including one that left a player temporarily hospitalized with a neck injury a few years ago. He and his coaching staff have taken more precautions since then, including mandatory concussion testing for their players before each season, and additional exams during the year.

The need for vigilance to avoid long-term injuries has become much more widely known, he said. “Years ago, this wasn’t as prevalent. But there are eyes on everything nowadays.”

Last season, Timmy Parlato manned the blue line for a Needham squad which earned a berth in the Super 8 tournament. This season, he has been shifted up front by Guisti, who calls Parlato a “wild card,’’ comparing him to Danny Woodhead, an undersized running back for the New England Patriots.

“He’s not big in stature, but he’s got the biggest heart in the whole league,’’ Guisti said. “He’s a great little player.’’

Parlato will likely skate a wing on the second line for a Needham team that Guisti believes may be as deep as any he has coached.

He has four balanced lines that can all skate, four or five solid defensemen, and two goaltenders capable of starting on any night, Guisti said.

Senior captain Evan MacDonald was a force in goal last season, going 11-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average in the Bay State Conference. He’ll face friendly competition for playing time from junior Connor Murray, a transfer from the Dexter School.

“Evan has done an outstanding job for us the past two seasons,” the coach said. “He’s a real solid goalie and a great leader. We’re fortunate enough to have two good goalies, so we’ll see how it all plays out.”

Needham has qualified for the elite playoff tournament the past three years, but could not bring home the big trophy. Senior captain Chris Joyce believes the Rockets have as good a chance as any to be the best team in the state this season.

“All the bad things that could have happened have happened in the past,’’ said the 6-foot-3, 195-pound defenseman. “There’s not really separation in the locker room, where that might have been there before. The younger kids look up to us and we respect them.’’

Fellow senior captain Tommy Coleman also praised the team’s chemistry, noting the lack of big egos that may have caused distractions in the past.

“I like this year’s team better than any team I’ve ever had,’’ Guisti said. “It’s a nice group of kids. We’re pleased with the way we’ve played in scrimmages so far. But for us to compete with Malden Catholic, Catholic Memorial, Xaverian, and Hingham, we’ve got to have our A game.’’

After losing their Super 8 play-in game in 2008 to Xaverian, 3-0, the Rockets were seeded into the Division 1 tournament and won the state title. But it was a bittersweet victory for the players, and this year’s team admits being frustrated with the lack of success in the Super 8.

Three years ago, said senior forward Sam Nickles, few people in town really knew the difference between the Division 1 title and the Super 8 crown. But the Rockets are blooming with confidence and focus this season, and anything other than success in the premier bracket would be a disappointment.

“We have to be ready every single night,’’ Guisti said. “Hopefully, we can get back in there and do a good job.’’

The three-time champions of the Bay State’s Carey Division will open their season Saturday night with a nonleague match against Catholic Memorial on a big stage, Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena.

Coleman said the Rockets play with a chip on their shoulder whenever they face a private-school powerhouse such as Catholic Memorial.

“They have players from all over the place, and we’ve grown up together and have been playing with each other for years,’’ he said.

“We have more town pride,’’ added Nickles. “It will be fun.’’

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@ yahoo.com.