A doctor behind a proposal to raise the age of bodychecking in U.S. youth hockey says there's more than enough evidence for Canada to do the same — and a large reason for that is a Canadian study.
USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur hockey in the United States, is to vote on a rule change in June to ban bodychecking until children turn 13 — a move that would raise the age by two years.
The proposal comes in part because of a study conducted by the University of Calgary that showed bodychecking in Pee Wee hockey, ages 11 and 12, more than tripled the risk of concussion and injury.
"That study is really a landmark peer-reviewed article that helps guide us," said Michael Stuart, chief medical officer at USA Hockey.
The 2010 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared rates of injury between Alberta Pee Wee leagues, where bodychecking was allowed, and Quebec leagues, where it isn't. Alberta leagues saw 73 concussions, compared with Quebec's 20.
Researchers concluded that if bodychecking were eliminated in Alberta's Pee Wee hockey, more than 400 game-related concussions could be prevented a year among its 8,800 players.
Across Canada, bodychecking is legal at 11 years old, except in Quebec, where it's banned until 13, the Bantam level.
The USA Hockey push to raise the bodychecking age raises questions about why Canada isn't doing the same.
Recent headline-grabbing concussion stories such as that of NHL superstar Sidney Crosby's were "fortuitous" in bringing the issue back into the limelight and raises awareness of the dangers across the sport, Stuart says.
Experts divided over research
Concussions in children
What should you look for if you suspect your child has suffered a concussion? Kids can be particularly at risk for concussion — even if they're not involved in sports. Falling off a couch or bumping into a table could provide enough of a blow to cause a concussion. Watch for:
- Listlessness, easy to tire.
- Irritability, crankiness.
- A change in eating or sleeping patterns.
- A lack of interest in favourite toys.
- A loss of balance or unsteady walking.
You should seek medical attention if your child loses consciousness, suffers a seizure, vomits repeatedly, has a headache that keeps getting worse, or has lasting or recurrent dizziness.
For more, see the concussion FAQ.
USA Hockey's senior director of hockey development, Kevin McLaughlin, says in the past two years, every competitive Pee Wee hockey game with bodychecking that he's watched has been stopped at least once because of injury.
"I don't think that's appropriate for 11- and 12-year-olds," McLaughlin said.
However, Charles Tator, a University of Toronto neurologist fighting to raise awareness about concussions, isn't sure the Calgary study provides enough evidence for Canada to raise the bodychecking age in minor league hockey.
Minor hockey in Quebec, he says, traditionally has fewer serious injuries and may not be the best representation of the rest of Canada.
"More research needs to be done before we make a global decision about when or when not to allow it," Tator said.
Stuart, who works at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, disagrees.
"We could wait forever for the perfect study," Stuart said. "And during that time, there would be a lot of missed opportunities to reduce serious injuries, including concussions."
Even if the bodychecking proposal is approved, Stuart stresses, body contact won't be eliminated.
Head injuries and NHL bravado
Losing NHL star Sidney Crosby to a concussion is a reminder that all players are vulnerable, Canadian hockey Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne says. But ask Dionne about another high-profile hit, on Maple Leaf Mikhail Grabovski, and he takes a more typically tough-guy approach. Experts say this type of bravado needs to change to reduce head injuries in the National Hockey League.
"I'm the first to admit that I love contact in the sport of ice hockey. And actually we're going to promote contact at even younger levels," Stuart said.
Under the proposal, a structured curriculum would teach body control — angling and anticipation and other skills required to take a bodycheck and deliver one — so that kids would be prepared for when it became legal.
Many younger players, Stuart says, don't have the physical skills or mental awareness to safely execute legal bodychecks. They lose body control, causing more unintentional, high-risk collisions often misconstrued as checking.
A large part of the impetus for the proposed change lies in giving players two extra years to develop their skills.
USA Hockey's McLaughlin said the association learned simply by watching a few Pee Wee games.
"Pee Wees don't play with the puck, they don't want it," he said. "Instead, players focused on either hitting or avoiding hits."
Which event packs a higher G-force punch — a sneeze or a shuttle launch? Surprisingly, they ring in around the same, at about 3 gravities (Gs). More on G-force.
Optimal age for skill development, McLaughlin says, is between the ages of 9 and 12, so the association wants to take advantage of the Pee Wee years to allow young players to master their skills before they focus on bodychecks in games.
This way, Stuart says, they won't spend their energy "looking behind them to see if somebody's going to crush them into the boards."
"There will still be a lot of bumping," McLaughlin said. "There will still be a lot of battling for pucks. What will be missing — the only thing, hopefully — are the big blow-up hits, the intimidating hits."