The issue of body checking in hockey has come into sharp focus with the sight of its star player Sidney Crosby watching the playoffs from the sidelines.
The 23-year-old superstar from Cole Harbour, N.S. has been off the ice since suffering a concussion in January. If there’s an up-side to him being out for the season, it’s the realization that concussions are serious brain injuries and should be treated as such, says Syd Johnson, a bio-ethicist with Françoise Baylis’s research team at Dalhousie, Novel Tech Ethics.
“Until now, there’s been pressure to brush off these kind of injuries and to send them out to play,” she says.
A skill that can be taught
Nevertheless, removing body checking from hockey isn’t the answer, says Daniel Bartek, 22, who plays varsity hockey with the Dal Tigers. From the Czech Republic, Mr. Bartek grew up playing full contact hockey, although the emphasis was on swift skating and stick handling. Body checking wasn’t a skill that he was taught.
He wishes it was. Once he moved to North America to play major junior A hockey—first in Washington, then in Brandon, Manitoba—he found the play to be more physical and the contact more frequent.
He says body checking is a skill that can be learned—how to take a hit and how to apply one. “If you’re smart, if you know the basics, then you can position your body to absorb the hit. The injuries come when you’re not prepared.”
The Dal Tigers coach agrees that banning body checking from hockey “takes too much away ... it’s part of the physical game of hockey,” says Pete Belliveau, reached while on the road in Maine while on a recruiting trip.
Coach Belliveau agrees teaching body checking is crucial, so players will realize that hits to the head should never be tolerated. “Referees should be vigilant and apply strict penalties when the rule is violated.”
Dr. Kevin Gordon, a professor of pediatric neurology at Dalhousie, says perhaps players (and their parents) should be given a choice: to play contact hockey—and to accept the risks that may incur—or to play non-contact hockey.
“I believe we have to be more transparent with parents, namely that contact leagues do have a higher injury rate for minor and major injury—is this a risk that they wish to expose their children to?” asks Dr. Gordon, who brought attention to the phenomenon of “locker boxing” among young hockey and lacrosse players a few years ago.
A separate stream?
“A separate stream of competitive hockey without ‘body contact’ could be considered where there are enough players to support it.”
Ultimately, while he supports Dr. Johnson’s thesis, he says injury rates among young athletes are often due to fighting and not necessarily body checking. He notes there are two recorded cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in hockey—Reggie Flemming and Bob Probert—both of whom spent much of their careers in the penalty box for fighting.
SEE RELATED STORY: Ban body checking in youth hockey: Dal researcher
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