Nova Scotia has become the second province to ban body checking at all levels of peewee hockey, in an effort to reduce injuries for younger players.
'We want to provide non-body checking options for players who want to play the game for fun without having to worry about the risk of injury.'—Randy Pulsifer, president Hockey Nova Scotia
Hockey Nova Scotia passed the motion banning body checking on Sunday. The ban will come into effect at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season.
The decision comes as momentum grows to make the game safer for adolescents who, doctors say, are suffering high rates of hockey-related head injuries.
Decision comes too late for some
The news comes too late for former Nova Scotia hockey player Alex Oyler, 12, who suffered a hit to the head in a peewee AA game earlier this season. The hit and subsequent fall to the ice were so severe that Alex was out of school for five months.
"It was tough on myself, you know, just knowing that this is going to change my life. It won’t be the same. I am going to have to live life quietly," he said.
"I’m just glad it’s out of the game, it’s a great day," said Alex’s mother, Mia Fortin.
Dr. Kevin Gordon, head of pediatric neurology at the IWK specializing in head injuries, said implementing the checking ban is a step toward reducing injury in hockey. He praised Hockey Nova Scotia’s decision to make the change.
"There is no question that the injury rate is three times higher in body checking versus body contact leagues and that includes concussions," he said.
"If you take your kid in peewee this year, the likely rate of injury is one in five, in Nova Scotia … concussion rate, one in 15 —that means one child in every team should at least have a concussion. With our new peewee league coming at us next year, those rates are going to be one in 15 for injuries and one in 57 for head injuries. I mean, what a dramatic change that’s going to make to us who are managing concussions — a significant reduction for all this carnage in hockey," he said.
Doctors expect Alex to make a full recovery. Fortin said she’s happy about that, even though it comes at a cost.
"No more hockey for him, the doctor strongly recommends that he does not ever do contact sports ever again, for the rest of his life, reason being his first concussion was so severe if he gets a second one, [statistics] prove that it would be even worse," she said.
"It’s hard, hockey was his favourite thing to do."
Hockey for those who play for fun
The peewee age category includes players ages 11 to 12. The motion to ban checking also includes players ages 13 to 14 at the bantam B, C levels and players ages 15 to 17 at the midget B, C levels.
Alberta is currently the only other province to ban body checking for all levels of peewee hockey.
Data shows that hockey players at 11 and 12 vary greatly in size and weight and doctors warn of the potential damage to developing brains, said executive director of Hockey Alberta Rob Litwinski in an interview earlier this week.
"At its core, this decision is all about the safety of our players. We have seen a great deal of evidence that body checking is the biggest risk factor when it comes to injuries and concussions in minor hockey," said Hockey Nova Scotia’s president Randy Pulsifer in a news release.
"At the bantam and midget levels, we wanted to provide non-body checking options for players who want to play the game and have fun without having to worry about the risk of injury."
Hockey Calgary had proposed a similar ban in the past, but that was defeated last summer.
Hockey leagues in Ontario and Quebec have eliminated body checking for some peewee teams but Alberta and Nova Scotia are the first to ban body checking for all peewee-level hockey players.
Medical community applauds decision
Pulsifer created a committee eight months ago to review the issue in minor hockey. The committee included members from Hockey Nova Scotia who met with medical officials to review scientific research into the matter.
People in the medical community applauded the decision.
"By doing this, Hockey Nova Scotia is reducing the risk of children receiving a head injury at these levels by over two-thirds," said Dr. Kevin Gordon, head of pediatric neurology at the IWK Health Centre, in a news release.
"Hockey Nova Scotia continues to be a leader in reducing brain injuries in children across the province. Families can be a little less concerned as these decisions make the sport a tremendous amount safer for youth in the game."
Hockey Nova Scotia is now in the process of creating guidelines for coaches to better educate their players at the atom and peewee levels on skills like positioning, skating, stick checking and angling to better prepare them for body checking at the higher bantam levels.
Mixed reaction on social media
The decision prompted mixed reaction on social media, with some arguing that the ban will result in greater injuries for kids.
"That is a bad decision by Hockey Nova Scotia. The size difference at that age is minimal, compared to 13 and 14 year olds," read one Tweet.
"Best news ever for a hockey mom on Mother’s day," read another. "Checking should be banned from hockey, period."
Others argued the importance of teaching kids how to hit and how to take a hit before reaching higher hockey levels.