October is a time that heralds a new season of the good old Canadian sport - Hockey! Arenas, basements, bars and anywhere else that volunteers meet are teaming with discussions of policies and how to best promote this Canadian Institution. As a coach, player, hockey parent and doctor, I enjoy the interactions that such discussion generates. Over the last 12 years, I have seen rules come and go, but most seem to just swirl around in full circles over the years. It is undisputable that the recent rule changes in the National Hockey League (NHL) have resulted in changes of how the game is played, but it really hasn’t changed the game. Body checking is one of those controversial issues. It was banned in house-league levels for the longest time, and then reintroduced a few years ago. It was felt that with better equipment, learning to body-check at a younger age would result in better quality of play and player. The pros and cons are too numerous to get into to. One thing is for sure, and that is that body checking does make it a whole different game. As a coach, I somewhat reluctantly accepted the reintroduction and we began to teach the skill to players. We soon discovered that there is just no way of regulating that flow of testosterone that clouds common sense and sometimes spills into the stands.
The data of reintroduction of body checking is plentiful enough to allow analysis. Articles are appearing in the literature, which tend to mirror and confirm my own experience. In one season alone on my midget team comprised of 16 and 17 year olds, we racked up 14 injuries severe enough to cause players to miss or leave games. Six of the injuries were minor concussions, which are difficult to diagnose and tend to be under-reported. One recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at the injury rates among 10 to 12 year olds. Alarmingly, introduction of body checking doubles the risk of injury. Interestingly, not all injuries resulted from body-checks. The game strategy changes somewhat when different size kids are encouraged to bump each other off the puck in order to gain control. Another study in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics substantiated the findings of increased injuries, but also found an earlier age of body-checking introduction correlates with higher injury levels. This is all coming at a time when Ontario and Saskatchewan are attempting to solidify the entry level of body checking at age 9. Other provinces are not ready to follow suit.
I have also coached women’s hockey, and find that the sport is growing substantially amongst the female sect. There is no body checking allowed at any level in women’s hockey. The game is enjoyable to watch and results in fewer injuries. Adult men’s hockey is another growing sector that does not allow body checking. Many coaches are uncomfortable with the double standard that requires them to teach a skill which is banned in their own leagues. The data is now in, and I now lend my voice in joining the Canada Safety Council to refine this issue so as to minimize the injury to our kids.
I am not certain whether banning body checking would rid us of the “arena parent syndrome”. Only in a Canadian hockey arena do I hear parents screaming at the tops of their lungs for their kids to “hit” other children. One of the most destructive devices in house league sports is the scoreboard. They seem to influence how parents react, and tend to obliterate all the positive aspects and attributes that team play can generate and teach. If it were up to me, I would ban the things, and replace them with automatic blood pressure cuffs. I encourage you to go to the arena in a positive frame of mind. Recognize that referees are part of the human race and may not see the game at ice level in the same way that a parent sees it from the stands. All kids play the game for the love of it. Cash for goals is bribery, and does not encourage the finesse of a well-executed team play. Look a little further and you will discover that what really makes your child a good team player are attributes that will make them valuable members of society. Encourage and build on this principle and the future returns will be plentiful.