Jennifer Cox is a communications graduate from the University of Windsor who is now a computer trainer for the Avon Maitland District School Board. She lives in Clinton with her husband and two children. She writes when she can find the time.
Spring is in the air and many hockey parents are bidding a bittersweet farewell to arenas, washing up the hockey equipment, and looking ahead to soccer season. Some parents are breathing a sigh of relief that their child made it through a season with no major injuries; others might not have been so lucky.
You may have heard talk in the media this past hockey season about increasing the age when body checking is allowed in minor hockey. Like any parent, I’m always interested in knowing more about things that could directly affect my child. Next hockey season, my son will be going into his second year of Atom level, which is aged nine to 10. Unless the rules change, it will be his last year before body checking is introduced at Pee Wee level, which is aged 11 to 12.
Can I imagine him getting body checked after one more year of “safety”? I can, but the thought of it makes me cringe. Do you think he can imagine himself body checking? For sure, he can. Think of all the sports news shows highlighting fights in the professional leagues that glorify the hard hits, accidental and otherwise. There is a whole generation of young, keen players putting themselves in the skates of these pros. I admire the passion and drive for the game but what these young players don’t see on TV and the internet is the ongoing physical therapy, chronic pain, and even internal injury that these pros deal with. Naturally this concerns me and I did some research, read some articles that talk about body checking, and spoke to some local “in the know” people.
What I’ve learned is that talking about body checking in minor hockey with other parents can be like talking about religion. People feel very strongly about the topic and have no trouble voicing opinions and why they feel that way. Most commonly the reasoning that I hear behind introducing body checking at a young age is that the players need to learn the difference between “safe” and “legal” body checking and they need to learn how to do it “properly”. They talk about angles of shoulders and elbows.
As I am not a hockey coach nor have I ever played hockey I kind of took this reasoning as sound. After reading the studies and the evidence though, to me, using that reasoning is like watching a toddler fall off a bike without training wheels again and again and thinking it’s okay because he needs to learn how to fall off properly.
EMOTION THE MISSING KEY
Hockey is a fast-paced sport involving many challenging skills – it doesn’t make sense to me to introduce body checking at an age where the players are mostly just barely getting all of that coordination under control. I think there is also a piece missing in the equation, which is emotion. I think it’s hard at any maturity level to keep your emotions in check, let alone at adolescence. When there is anger or revenge involved in “legal” body checking I think it turns into a whole different thing, a potentially dangerous thing. A coach can only do so much to teach proper skill, which I’m sure they do very well. A coach cannot control a player’s reaction.
But, let’s turn to the experts for some evidence.
A study by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine analyzed Edmonton area emergency room visits over 13 hockey seasons from 1997 to 2010 and followed two groups of players. The study showed that the group of players who started body checking at 10 years old were just as likely to be seriously injured (fractures, concussions, etc.) as the players who started body checking one year later.
A five-year study by the University of Buffalo of 3,000 Burlington boys ages four to 18 showed that 66 per cent of injuries were because of accidents such as colliding with team mates, sliding into boards or being hit with the puck. The other 34 per cent of injuries were attributed to body checking. This 34 per cent consisted of injuries that kept players off the ice for at least 24 hours.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information analyzed 8,000 hockey related injuries in Ontario hospital emergency rooms in 2002/2003 and found that among players 18 and under, 62 per cent of these injuries were due to body checking.
The risks of concussion injuries are enough to scare anyone away. The New York Times reported in 2010 that out of 9,000 11- and 12-year-old Alberta hockey players there were 700 concussions in a season.
CONCUSSIONS CAUSED BY LEGAL CHECKING TOO
In an article published in the Dal News at Dalhousie University scientist Syd Johnson writes, “The fact is that the vast majority of concussions, and hockey injuries overall, at all levels of play, are caused by legal body checking.”
Her study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concludes that body checking should be banned up to age 16.
The Canadian Pediatric Society released a statement back in November that called for the delay of body checking in competitive hockey leagues until players are at the Bantam level (13 and 14). The statement also called for a ban on body checking in non-competitive hockey for all children and youth.
Currently, in Ontario, and recommended by Hockey Canada, body checking begins at the Pee Wee level (11- to 12-year-olds). However, minor hockey in Quebec as well as in the U.S. has no allowance for body checking at the Pee Wee level.
The debate is nothing new. In 2000, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement recommending that body checking not be allowed for children younger than 15. Interestingly, body checking is not allowed at all in girls’ or women’s hockey in Canada.
Hockey has always been hockey, hasn’t it? Injury is nothing new. Is there a concern that it has become rougher? Are minor sports suffering as parents decide to not sign their children up for fear of serious injury?
I spoke with Mike Millian, President of BCH (Bayfield Clinton Hensall) Minor Hockey and long-time hockey player and coach, to get a local perspective on the issue.
He said that BCH registration overall might be down slightly but has increased at the Tyke level. The noticeable drop off is at the Midget level (ages 15 to 17). He attributes this to the fear of smaller 15-year-old players potentially up against much larger 17-year-old-players.
I asked him about the possibility of offering a non-body contact division. He said this was offered through the WOAA (Western Ontario Athletic Association) a couple of years ago at the Midget level and BCH had just enough players interested to make up a team. However there was not enough interest in the rest of the WOAA area as the plug was pulled before it even began.
DESIRE FOR NON-CONTACT TEAMS GROWING
I asked him in his experience if he thinks that body checking and injuries are worse now. He believes that the way players hit is different than it used to be. The injury level might be seen as being worse due to the increased awareness of concussion symptoms. He believes that there is a desire for non-contact teams and he thinks that eventually it will be available at all non-rep team levels.
He added there was a decision made by the OMHA two years ago that house league teams would be non-body contact. This rule only works well when there are enough players to make up several house league teams that can play against each other.
I also contacted Dr. Carolyn Wood, a local chiropractor, to get her professional opinion on the potential damage done due to body contact hockey at the minor level. As a chiropractor, Dr. Wood’s main concern is for the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves), the spine and the skull. She said that out of the sport related injuries she treats in adolescents, one third of them are due to hockey. Of course this could be due to the fact that in this area hockey is a very popular sport.
But hockey related injuries are a significant concern in relation to a child’s brain, which is more vulnerable to the side effects from concussion. Dr. Wood says that studies have proven that the older the child is before body checking is introduced the better. In the older age groups, the range of weight and height is not so wide.
Dr. Wood added that the Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine recommends eliminating body checking from all minor hockey levels that aren’t training for professional or international competition.
As a parent with a son who played hockey, Dr. Wood understands the difficulty parents face and she believes hockey associations at a provincial and national level need to implement the recommendations from the pediatric health organizations. It makes it very difficult for a parent only wanting to protect their children’s health and safety when they are left to tell a child they can’t play a sport because of the body checking.
Dr. Wood also reminded me of the costs involved with injury due to body checking that could easily be prevented by eliminating it in minor hockey: costs to our health care system that can have lifelong implications such as chronic joint and muscle issues.
I would agree that as a society we tend to gloss over the injury issue and have a false sense of security that whatever injury occurs, our amazing medical system will be able to fix it. Yes, a broken collarbone or leg can be mended but a damaged brain or nervous system cannot be replaced.
I can’t deny though the buzz caused by a good clean check – but only when it’s warranted, like they should actually have the puck still, and when it’s engaged in by grown ups who should know the rules about when it’s right and when it’s wrong. But maybe fighting has gone too far in the professional leagues and we need to stop feeding into it so much, which would lessen its glorification among the younger players.
Although I’m no expert in hockey, nor am I doctor, I don’t buy the “teach ‘em young” philosophy. I would rather younger players be coached in developing balance, endurance, and the ability to do many things well at once – like skate hard, keep their head up, and move the puck. I don’t see that body contact has anything to do with these skills. If all of these things are developed, then at an older age body contact could be introduced and I don’t think it would take much to pick it up. If no one else has learned it until that age then what would be the harm?
I’m not sure I’m ready to start the petition just yet. I do see more awareness around concussion injury but now that we’ve heard so much from the scientists and doctors, I’d like to see more discussion among the hockey experts, the old and the young. I’m sure there are some young players who love the thrill of body checking but I’m just as sure there are many who would enjoy hockey more without it.