Hockey was Thomas Smith’s life-long love. But five years ago, the sport he cherished so much left him unable to walk without assistance. “It’s a game that’s supposed to provide so much hope and joy,” the 25-year-old Swampscott native and former left wing says, “and yet it’s provided me so much sadness and really flipped my life upside down. No one should have to go through that.”
That’s why Smith created the Look-Up Line, a wide, bright-orange border painted onto the edge of the ice that signals players to pick their heads up before hitting the boards, diminishing the risk of catastrophic head and spinal injuries as a result. It’s simple in concept and dramatic in effect, and it doesn’t require a single new rule—only seven gallons of paint—and Smith won’t stop until the Look-Up Line is in every hockey rink in the world.
Back in August 2008, Smith was a graduate of the Pingree School in South Hamilton with plans to compete in college and the pros. Then, during a game, he hit the boards headfirst and was paralyzed, having dislocated four cervical vertebrae and suffering an internal decapitation. Against the odds, he recovered and doctors cleared him to play hockey again. But at practice in October 2009, Smith hit his head on the boards once more and damaged a thoracic vertebra. It was another paralyzing injury, one without a miracle-recovery postscript.
Today, despite requiring crutches to walk, Smith still calls hockey the greatest game in the world. “I don’t want people to not play hockey because of what happened to me,” he says.
Instead, after founding the Thomas E. Smith Foundation—an organization devoted to finding a cure for paralysis—Smith wanted to eradicate the sorts of injuries that debilitated him. After experiments with padded boards, Smith had an epiphany while watching the Red Sox play in August 2012: An outfielder ran for a fly ball, then slowed down and put out his arm when he saw the warning track. “It hit me that all sports have made modifications so players have a sense of where they are, and can make proper bodily adjustments before they make contact with the boards,” he says.
That realization led to the Look-Up Line. It measures 40 inches wide—large enough for players to see in their peripheral vision, prompting them to look up from the puck—and is painted Pantone 151C orange, a durable color that doesn’t clash with any other markings on the ice. The Look-Up Line costs less than $500 (there’s no charge beyond the cost of materials), takes an afternoon to put down, and, according to Smith, has no effect on “the speed, intensity, or heritage of the game.”
It doesn’t impact the sport’s innate aggression either—and that’s by design. “Hitting is a part of the game and hitting needs to be part of the game,” Smith says. “But there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and the Look-Up Line reiterates that there needs to be safety along the boards, period.”
After debuting the Look-Up Line at the Pingree School in May 2013, Smith has been advocating its benefits to anyone who spends time on the ice. It received endorsements from Massachusetts Hockey, Inc., as well as longtime Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, who also serves on the rules committees for the NCAA and USA Hockey. Smith estimates that Look-Up Lines are in 225 rinks in 27 states, with another 30 in Canada. On the North Shore, Look-Up Lines grace the ice at the Phillips Academy in Andover, the Brooks School in North Andover, the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, and other locations.
To Smith, it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the NHL and rinks the world over—the biggest obstacle, he says, is hockey’s stubborn, change-wary culture. But he’s heartened by support from coaches, parents, and players who, thanks to a bright orange line, understand how simply picking their heads up can prevent life-altering injuries.
And when you look at things a little differently, progress is inevitable. just-cureparalysis.org