Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Body Contact Is Hazardous

For years, Don Cherry made a ton of cash off packaging and selling physicality in the form of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Hockey videos. One has to wonder how many of those teeth-rattling and bone-crushing hits rattled teeth, broke bones, and resulted in concussions, but there's no way to know unless we can examine those players' brains for CTE and their bodies and skeletons for scars. I've heard the arguments that hitting in hockey should start earlier, should start later, should be banned altogether, and every variation in between, but we may now have conclusive evidence that one of those opinions is correct thanks to work done by the University of Calgary.

From 2015-16 until 2017-28, the University of Calgary's Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre ran a study that followed 608 non-elite minor hockey players from bodychecking divisions in Calgary, Airdrie, and Edmonton to track injuries and concussions in players who engaged in three-or-more years of bodychecking compared to 396 players from Calgary, Vancouver, and Kelowna who had two years or less of checking. One may think that exposing players earlier to checking would result in better preparation and less injuries after learning how to throw and receive a bodycheck, but anyone thinking that would be very wrong.

According to the study, "[t]he rate of injury was 62% lower and rate of concussion was 51% lower in leagues not permitting body checking." That's a significant statistic when one considers the developing brains and bodies of players between the ages of 15-17, and it's one that's hard to ignore when it comes to minor hockey and the age when players start to throw checks. If parents of players knew they could reduce the rate of injuries by 62% simply by removing hitting, why would anyone vote to have players throwing checks?

"This is just further evidence in support of removing body checking in youth ice hockey to help prevent injuries," Paul Eliason, a post-doctoral fellow in the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre, told the CBC.

The study was actually started after Hockey Canada had removed hitting in the U13 level of hockey, and they were worried that more players were being injured from bodychecks as they got older by not having that experience. Based on the findings that players with three-or-more years of hitting experience suffered a much higher rate of injuries and concussions, I'd say that Hockey Canada's decision was the right one.

The study itself broke down the numbers even further as "it looked at the rates of all types of injuries, injuries that resulted in more than seven days off the ice, and concussions." The findings show that "players who had more checking experience were injured or concussed more than 2½ times the rate of the less experienced players. And the most common injury was a concussion — regardless of experience — making up more than a third of the injuries."

You might think player size or weight or position would factor into the results, but the study "didn't find any notable difference in injuries or concussions based on weight, or player position". In short, it doesn't matter whether players are tall, small, big, little, forwards, defenders, or goalies when it comes to bodychecking and the high rate of injuries for those who start earlier.

The only attribute that seemed to matter when it came to the rate of injuries was hockey skill. The study found that "lesser skilled players were injured nearly 1½ times more often than the better skilled, elite players who represented the top 20 per cent." A lot of that skill is based on the ability to skate well, so it might be more important to ensure that your son can skate better than he hits.

Eliason is quick to point out that we shouldn't cherry-pick from the findings when it comes to the safety of players.

"The take home still needs to be that really we're just showing here that more experience isn't protective, which is what the belief is in the hockey community," said Eliason.

If checking is removed from bantam hockey altogether, the end result would be less injuries and less concussions. If we're talking about players who are 15-17 years of age, these are important years where grades can matter when it comes to academic scholarships and stats on the ice can matter when it comes to athletic scholarships. Injuries, specifically concussions, can derail both of those opportunities, so it might be a good idea if we hold off exposing players to bodychecking at the bantam level if injuries occur 62% less and concussions happen 51% less.

I'm not in charge of any provincial hockey associations, but this study should be something that all associations should be reading. If they want kids to remain in hockey longer, reducing the potential for injuries and concussions is an easy fix that can be made and it might lead to more elite hockey players competing at higher levels. That last segment - "more elite hockey players" - is what every hockey association wants.

I doubt this study will land on the desks of those who make these decisions, though. Instead, it will be debated and dismissed by those who believe that teaching bodychecking earlier does, in fact, make the game safer despite the study conclusively proving it does not. No one is suggesting that hitting be removed from the game, but just starting it later in players' careers once they leave bantam hockey.

It seems pretty elementary to me. But I'm a nobody.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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