Bodychecking earlier shows no safety benefit

Learning to bodycheck at a younger age doesn't seem to reduce concussion and other injury rates, Canadian researchers say.

Learning to bodycheck at a younger age doesn't seem to reduce concussion and other injury rates, Canadian researchers say.

There is a controversial school of thought that kids will be less likely to get injured when they start checking at age 11 or peewee compared with age 13 or bantam.

Previously, Dr. Carolyn Emery of the University of Calgary faculty of kinesiology and her colleagues found a three-fold increase  in risk of injury in Alberta, where bodychecking is allowed in peewee leagues, and a four-fold increased risk of concussion, compared with bantam players in Quebec.

"When we did that study, we repeatedly heard from advocates for bodychecking in peewee that the injury rate in bantam would be much higher for players without peewee bodychecking experience," said Emery.

"What we found is that the overall injury and concussion risk did not differ between bantam leagues."

In Monday's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Emery and her co-authors compared injury rates for 995 players in Alberta with two years of bodychecking experience and 976 novice bodycheckers in Quebec.

There were 272 injuries, including 51 concussions in Alberta and 244 injuries including 49 concussions in Quebec. Physiotherapists and athletic therapists assessed the injuries.

Concussion risk

Emery said that this could be related to skills learned in a peewee bodychecking league, or could simply be that the Alberta League has more players who didn't drop out of hockey after bodychecking was introduced in peewee hockey.

The latest findings also suggested the risk of injury resulting in more than seven days before return to play was reduced by 0.67 times among bantam players who had two years of bodychecking experience compared with bantam players who were first introduced to it at age 13.

The finding needs to be interpreted in light of the higher risk of concussion and all injury among players who are 11 to 12 when bodychecking is first allowed, the researchers said.

"Consideration should be given also to the age at which a player is able to make an informed decision about playing under these conditions of increased risk, perhaps after they have finished a critical physical growth period that could be focused on skill development," the study's authors suggested.

Grace Lane's son, Alexander, 12, said he has suffered three concussions — two hits from behind and a blindside hit to the head.

If it was up to his mother, there would be changes in minor hockey.

"There wouldn't be any hitting," she said. "There would be body contact. You would nudge people off of the puck, you would do all of the things that let's say the women do at the high levels."

Based on the earlier findings, Hockey USA has delayed the introduction of hitting until Bantam. Hockey Canada has no plans to make any changes to its bodychecking policy.

Researchers from Laval University, the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University and the Alberta Children's Hospital also took part in the study.

With files from CBC's Erin Collins