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Hockey Alberta latest to enact bodychecking ban for peewee players; better get used to it

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It is impossible to keep the emotion out of a discussion about banning body checking in minor hockey. That might be a tip-off that various administrative bodies which, in the face of mounting medical evidence, are raising the age at which players are introducing to checking might be on the right track.

Without the emotion that is the sport's ethos, for good or ill, it would be a no-brainer. Hockey's hardliners will maintain that delaying the introduction of one of the game's rougher skills is counterproductive since it means young players will be clueless when bodychecking is introduced, but that would seem to pale in comparison to the aftereffects, which include "fundamentally changing who we are when we smack our heads that hard."

[Related: Hockey Alberta eliminates body checking in peewee division]

On Wednesday, Hockey Alberta became the latest to heed the call of parents and researchers by saying body checking will be proscribed for 11- and 12-year-old players. The Greater Toronto Hockey League is also has also proposed similar measures. Each are respectively the biggest feeder systems for the Western and Ontario major junior leagues.

There is so much unknown about the effects of brain injuries, so you can understand the better-safe-than-sorry thinking.

From Meghan Pontis:

The amateur hockey body announced Wednesday that in the face of "overwhelming evidence" that body checking is a significant risk factor for injuries and concussions in youth hockey, they have decided to eliminate checking for players under 13 years of age.

“Our players’ safety is the foundation in making this decision,” said Hockey Alberta’s chair, Rob Virgil.

Starting in the 2013-14 season, the rules of play for the Atom level will apply to the Peewee group. Checking will be banned and there will be a penalty assessed for players who bodycheck.

Hockey Alberta’s board came to the decision following a recent review of scientific research, member feedback and surveys. (Calgary Herald)

Where one stands is inextricably linked to her/his involvement and personal history with the game, let's not kid ourselves. This taps the endless debate over what is the purpose of minor hockey and youth sports.

Is it a kind of sweaty social Darwinism where only the strong survive and the rest are gradually find their own level? Or is it about using sport as a vessel for personal development, since 99.9 per cent of the children are not going to have a playing career, but will have to learn how to get along in a group environment? Needless to say, while not everyone who plays/played hockey at an elite level is going to have the same opinion, those who do are probably not taking this well.

Rich Sutter, a former NHLer that played for many teams in his 13 season career, calls the move a 'big step backward.'

"I think it's a huge step backwards in what we're trying to accomplish within the minor hockey systems in Alberta and I don't know what it's going to be for our country. I just don't think it serves any good at all. I think it's a huge step back if that's the case."

Sutter is worried that instead of preventing injury, the ban on body checking will encourage more.

"It's going to create a whole lot of injury down the road at 15, 16, and 17. I think it's going to create a lot of bad habits. It's going to create a lot of things that are going to go on in the game that aren't happening in our game. Quite frankly, it's another rule in our game that doesn't need to be in the game." (CTV Calgary)

If that's the unintended consequence, surely it will be addressed. What we might be seeing is that the growing empirical evidence about brain injuries — call 'em what they are! — has caused views to evolve. Obviously, you want hockey to still run that passion and emotion. You need some physical contact in the sport and there is no way to completely make it injury-free. But the Eric Gryba/Lars Eller collision in the Ottawa Senators-Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup playoff series, among others, showed there can be devastating aftereffects even when a player was intent on making what has been considered a textbook defensive play for generations. Nitpick the rules interpretations, but in the big picture, that suspension was proper. It's possible there could be some warming to the mindset that it's not soft to play the puck instead of the player. At some point, the NHL will have to realize even plays considered legal are problematic, like the NFL did.

That's where we are. Another departure point that seems to get overshadowed when this debate flares up is these are kids, not just physically, but emotionally. They want to emulate their pro hockey heroes and it's cute when they seem like NHLers in miniature. However, hockey is a difficult sport to master. Why divert a child's focus away from developing passing, shooting, stickhandling and skating skills at the critical age of 11 or 12 and point it toward hit, hit, hit? At an age when someone is starting to feel at ease, that can get shattered by being freight-trained by a bigger child. No wonder minor hockey has a dropout crisis right at that age group, although there are many, many other factors for that.

From Heather Boa, a hockey mother:

Hockey is a fast-paced sport involving many challenging skills — it doesn’t make sense to me to introduce body checking at an age where the players are mostly just barely getting all of that coordination under control. I think there is also a piece missing in the equation, which is emotion. I think it’s hard at any maturity level to keep your emotions in check, let alone at adolescence. When there is anger or revenge involved in 'legal' body checking I think it turns into a whole different thing, a potentially dangerous thing. A coach can only do so much to teach proper skill, which I’m sure they do very well. A coach cannot control a player’s reaction.But, let’s turn to the experts for some evidence.

A study by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine analyzed Edmonton area emergency room visits over 13 hockey seasons from 1997 to 2010 and followed two groups of players. The study showed that the group of players who started body checking at 10 years old were just as likely to be seriously injured (fractures, concussions, etc.) as the players who started body checking one year later.

A five-year study by the University of Buffalo of 3,000 Burlington boys ages four to 18 showed that 66 per cent of injuries were because of accidents such as colliding with team mates, sliding into boards or being hit with the puck. The other 34 per cent of injuries were attributed to body checking. This 34 per cent consisted of injuries that kept players off the ice for at least 24 hours.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information analyzed 8,000 hockey related injuries in Ontario hospital emergency rooms in 2002/2003 and found that among players 18 and under, 62 per cent of these injuries were due to body checking. (Huron News Now, Apr. 30)

Ironically, given the way this post began, Boa's emotional argument has more stickiness than the stats. Body checking came to be as a way to change the flow of play or take possession of the puck, not as an anger thing. It become one, though, and organizations such as Hockey Alberta are cluing into the reality it is not safe for children.

This change alone will not stop brain injuries. To hazard a guess, though, it will be the norm in minor hockey very soon. If you can rationally argue why that should not happen, more power to you.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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