A high-ranking sports doctor and the head coach of a hard-nosed NHL team have renewed the call to delay the introduction of body-checking into minor hockey, saying player safety is more important than knowing "whether or not they're going to know how to check in the National Hockey League."
Speaking at the world hockey summit in Toronto, Dr. Mark Aubry said players should not engage in fierce physical contact until they are 13 or 14 years old, citing both research and personal experience. Some Canadian jurisdictions are introducing body checking to players as young as 11.
"We're exposing these kids to an increased risk of injury at an age where I think we should still be talking about skill development and having fun," said Aubry, the International Ice Hockey Federation's chief medical officer. "I think that's where, hopefully, things may change in the future."
Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette was another member of the panel that discussed youth development on Tuesday, as concussions and the issue of player respect made a cameo appearance at the summit. Neither is on the official agenda for the four-day event.
Laviolette said his 12-year-old son suffered a concussion last year.
"The game for the kids has gotten just as fast," he said. "The equipment's faster, there's no hold-ups and no defensive interference. I've watched my kids in the last year, when I was out of work, and they take legitimate runs at each other."
Laviolette said the risk could be removed — or significantly lessened — if there was no body checking in that age group.
"I just think it's really important that we worry more about the kids' safety than we do about whether or not they're going to know how to check in the National Hockey League," Laviolette said.
A study released earlier this year by the University of Calgary revealed that peewee players faced increased risk of concussion when body checking was allowed in the game. The research compared samples in Alberta and Quebec, with peewee body checking allowed in the former, but not in the latter.
Research has suggested a number of frightening long-term implications for athletes who suffer multiple concussions, especially in younger players, but Aubry cautioned against alarm.
"Many players get concussions," he said. "And most of them turn out to be decent citizens with great futures, great families — they age well, they do well and they don't develop chronic (problems)."
The debate on when to have young players start body checking — or whether to have it at all — was one of the livelier topics of morning discussion.
Coaching styles, equipment changes and player safety concerns were also discussed.
Steve Norris, a doctor who has worked with Hockey Canada for the past 15 years, started the session by discussing athlete development and the behaviour and growth of young players. Panellists spoke for about 90 minutes before taking a few questions from media members, a former player and a few of the delegates in attendance.
Bob Boughner, president of the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires, said he was hopeful the sport will see some results from the summit at some point down the road.
Some USA Hockey and Hockey Canada officials rounded out the panel. A few hundred people were on hand for the morning session, including several NHL general managers, international hockey officials, agents and players. Among those in attendance were Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, national women's hockey coach Melody Davidson and Canadian Hockey League president David Branch.
"You'd like to hope there are some ideas that spark some thought and maybe some decision making," Boughner said. "But for the things said today, are things going to change tomorrow? Probably not. But hopefully they'll be part of future discussions."