Ban body checking in youth hockey: Dal researcher

Study is published in Canadian Medical Association Journal

Marilyn Smulders - April 18, 2011

(Bruce Bottomley Photo)

She’s willing to go toe-to-toe with Don Cherry on the issue of banning body checking in youth hockey—just let her grab her helmet first.

After doing an analysis of injuries in youth hockey leagues, Dalhousie’s Syd Johnson came to the conclusion that body checking should be banned for athletes up to the age of 16. Her study is being published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) today, Monday, April 18.

Injuries

Concussions in junior hockey are quite prevalent, with up to 25 per cent of all players in one season sustaining these injuries, she says, citing one recent study. Approximately 500,000 young people in Canada play hockey in organized leagues.

“This is a conversation that Canadians have to have: is it important that our kids take some body checks while on the ice for the sake of the game or is it more important that we protect their health?” asks Dr. Johnson, post-doctoral fellow in neuro-ethics at Dalhousie.

“The fact is that the vast majority of concussions, and hockey injuries overall, at all levels of play, are caused by legal body checking,” she adds. “It’s safe to say that as long as body checking is a part of ice hockey, a high rate of concussions will also be a part of hockey.”

Concussions can cause fatigue, poor concentration, headaches and memory loss which can affect academic and athletic performance. Repeat concussions are a risk factor for chronic traumatic encephalopathy which can lead to permanent behavioral and personality changes, early dementia and other serious neurological changes.

Currently, the age in which body checking is introduced to hockey depends on the province, ranging from age nine, the Atom level, in Saskatchewan and Ontario to age 14, the Bantam level, in Quebec. In Nova Scotia, body checking is introduced when players are 12 years old.

According to Hockey Canada, body checking is defined “as an individual defensive tactic designed to legally separate the puck carrier from the puck. This tactic is the result of a defensive player applying physical extension of the body toward the puck carrier moving in an opposite or parallel direction. The action of the defensive player is deliberate and forceful in an opposite direction to which the offensive player is moving and is not solely determined by the movement of the puck carrier.”

Dr. Johnson acknowledges that body checking is a part of the game when played at an elite level. But, she adds, very few kids—a mere one in 4,000—will ever play varsity hockey, Major Junior A or in the NHL for that matter. Further, girls’ hockey, which doesn’t allow body checking, shows “hockey can be played without it and more safely without it.”

'Thoroughly thumped'

Brett Taylor, associate professor of Emergency Medicine, Pediatrics and Health Informatics at Dalhousie, agrees body checking should be delayed for most children playing hockey. As a pediatrician who works in the emergency room at the IWK Children’s Hospital, he sees the injuries that result from on-ice collisions: the back and neck injuries, contusions, concussions and multiple fractures.

Boys playing in competitive leagues are allowed to body check “at an age when they don’t have the common sense to deal with this new found power,” says Dr. Taylor. When not applied properly and cleanly, a body check can send a player sliding into the boards or smack into the path of another player. The injured player arrives at the emergency ward “thoroughly thumped,” says Dr. Taylor. “When players don’t know what they’re doing, the hit often becomes rather chaotic and the damage goes well beyond the intent.”

He suggests hockey players who show the potential to play an elite level can be taught to “hit properly.”

“I think there’s an opportunity for sport medicine to determine when that might be, when players are mature enough and capable of doing it properly.”

SEE RELATED STORY: Body checking is 'part of the physical game of hockey'


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