Keep kids on the ice – and out of the clinic 7

“Canada’s game” has a problem.

These days, there’s less talk about hockey itself than there is about the head injuries spreading like a virus through every league from the pros to the peewees. Across the country, controversy is up, enrollment is down, and spectators are falling off. From the NHL (Neanderthal Hockey League) on down to local kids’ organizations, hockey poobahs everywhere are scrambling this fall to contain the damage caused to their players – and to their leagues’ reputations – because of hits to the head, dirty checks, and fighting.

Lots of debate & disagreement, much hand wringing, and a few accusations… But at the kids’ level, there’s a simple solution – and until it’s enacted, the number of kids playing will keep dropping while the number of head injuries continues to rise.

Hockey Canada should ban bodychecking in minor hockey.

My son is 12, and he’s been playing competitive hockey since he was 5. He moved down this year into the single-A division of the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) after a few years at double-AA, to a team that practises a little less. He wanted to play other sports as well. But so far, there hasn’t been much soccer, running, or anything else this fall – instead, he’s been dealing with whiplash, sustained when his head snapped back and hit the ice after a late hit in a game mid-October.

a big size difference in minor-Peewee: check out these two near-side wingers...

“Concussion-like symptoms”…familiar phrase if you’re a hockey fan, yes? Or if you’re a hockey parent, or a player yourself. Forty per cent of my son’s team is currently out with head injuries or whiplash. Six kids with headaches and neck pain – some with dizziness and nausea, some home from school, all eating Advil like candy.

What’s the official response around here?

Well, every GTHL team jersey has a STOP sign on the back. This is supposed to help prevent checking from behind, especially in the “kill zone” a few feet out from the boards. So are the new penalties and suspensions handed out this year for any contact to the head, accidental or otherwise. Lots of my son’s teammates have been disciplined – some kids now out with concussions missed earlier games due to suspensions for head hits on others. Nobody really wanted to hurt anyone, but when you play in a league that encourages “hockey plays” like “finishing your check” and “taking the man” – and you’re 12 – sometimes you’re going to crunch someone else’s head by mistake.

What else? Most coaches spend a little time during practice teaching the kids how to give and receive a hit: body position, weight transfer and so on. The kids practise gently squeezing each other out along the boards and bumping guys in front of the net. But come game time, most of this teaching is forgotten. Things become pretty random. Kids either run each other over, or they don’t – but not much of the contact is delivered or absorbed the way it was in practice.

The only real solution? Get rid of all bodychecking in all minor hockey leagues/divisions except the very top tiers (eg, GTHL triple-AAA). These are the divisions from which future pro players will come; everywhere else, the kids are in it for fun, without any real hope or dream of being the next (concussed) Sidney Crosby. Why subject kids playing for fun to a version of the game that puts their health at risk every time they step on the ice?

In the U.S. there’s now no hitting at all in minor hockey. In Quebec, kids don’t start “checking” until they’re 14. But in Ontario (except in a few leagues like the “Select” division of the North York Hockey League, and in a separate no-bodychecking league launched in Toronto a couple of years ago) bodychecking starts at 11. And so do the trips to the doc.

Adult rec-hockey leagues are run out of every rink across the world. Try to find one that allows bodychecking. You won’t. No sane recreational player over 18 wants to get creamed and spend the next six weeks visiting doctors just because some guy in the beer league “finished his check.” So – again – why subject young players to a version of hockey that adults won’t risk? Hypocrisy, anyone?

no checking - and no baseline testing needed

Hockey’s a great game; better still without egregious violence. Even the NHL is slowly waking up to this, as it suffers through a year in which three of its “enforcers” have tragically died and many of its top stars have spent time on the shelf, nailed with blind-side head shots. But minor hockey needn’t wait for the NHL: this change can spread upward from the kids to the pros rather than the other way down. If professionals want to keep concussing each other for a while, so be it…but kids across Canada could stop the trips to the clinic tomorrow.

Let’s go, Hockey Canada.



Leave a comment

7 thoughts on “Keep kids on the ice – and out of the clinic

  • Superscout

    Fantastic piece Abbot. I can’t believe those numbers from your son’s team. 40% out? Ridiculous. Very interesting that a lot of those players were sanctioned themselves for illegal hits. I do agree that a lot of this happens “by mistake”. I think hockey is at a cross-roads. While fighting has gotten all of the attention lately – with major publications like the New York Times studying the death of Derek Boogaard – I don’t think fighting will be the key issue going forward. I think the factor that will perhaps cause hockey to change is hitting/contact. I’d rather use the word “contact” because like you mentioned, some hits that result in concussions are done “by mistake”. So what is the key factor? While many people site the increasing size of players or the unforgiving nature of equipment these days, I think the key factor is speed. The game has gotten faster and faster, even at the youth level, and players are making “mistakes” because they don’t have the time to make the correct decision in terms of a hit that could hurt someone. Lucic claimed he didn’t have time to avoid Miller and I believe even Steckle claimed he didn’t have time to avoid Crosby – two of the most famous concussion-inducing hits in recent memory. What’s the solution to the speed problem? That’s a tough one. How about getting rid of skates and having everyone play the wonderful, exciting and even tough game of non-contact ball hockey : )

    • the Abbot Post author

      Timely comment, Superscout. Just soaking up all the media tonight about Crosby’s being sidelined once again with concussion-related symptoms (there’s that lovely phrase again). What a drag – for him, for his team, for the people who care about him and will be in his life post-hockey, and for hockey in general. Crosby, Giroux, Letang, Marc Staal, and many other fast, exciting players sidelined just this season.

      I agree with you. I think that ultimately, the Neanderthal Hockey League will have to take contact out. The game’s changed a lot, mostly because of the guys playing it. Time for the rules to change too.

  • Al

    From what I’ve heard from friends who have played for years and from the pros themselves, the problem is largely because kids aren’t taught to hit properly anymore, and the bad habits continue on all the way to the NHL.

    At any rate, hitting should be taken out of games for kids, but they should be taught to hit properly from a young age so they develop good habits.

    • the Abbot Post author

      I agree with some of what you say, Al – but not all. And it’s good you’re getting some discussions with pro hockey players. We know a few; for example, ex-Oiler Glenn Anderson is a good friend of Best Player:

      Your point about kids not being taught to hit properly is a good one. My own son’s team spends almost no time on this – not how to hit, nor how to take a hit. On the other hand, they always have a lot of other important things to work on, like getting the puck out of their own end, and limited practice time.

      I also agree with you when you say “hitting should be taken out of games for kids” – but then don’t understand why you think they should be taught to “hit properly.” If hitting isn’t part of the kids’ game, why spend time on teaching it? How about skating, shooting (usually brutally inaccurate in minor hockey), stickhandling (usually done poorly and at the wrong time/place), and passing (generally neglected by coaches these days)? I’d rather see the kids working on these core skills and take hitting out of the equation.

      Whether the GTHL et al follows your prescription or mine, though, they’re likely to end up with something a lot better than what they have now, with 1/3 of the kids out with concussions and another 1/3 worried about it.