Over recent weeks, many new visitors to the blog have come for my post on USA Hockey’s proposed body checking ban for the 12 & Under age group, also known as Pee Wees. It is a topic that has been and will be debated at length for many months to come. Many fear change, but the reasons behind it are completely understandable, especially as we learn more about head injuries in hockey.
As my previous post mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the change is to encourage skill development, as players between the ages of 9-12 are in their prime window of skill acquisition. If you haven’t read it yet, check out the post as I go into more detail about this part of the proposal.
It is important to not overlook this fact: The new proposed rule would also ENCOURAGE body contact from the youngest levels of hockey. Meaning body angling, incidental contact and body positioning would be better taught at the younger levels and would mainly go unpenalized during games.
Of course, another reason for delaying checking until 14 & Under (Bantam) is safety. Concussions, namely, have been the topic du jour and why shouldn’t they be? The league’s best player is unable to play because of a head injury suffered months ago. The many concussions of players like Marc Savard, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau, just to name a few, have been discussed at length of late. Most recently, the New York Times published a story on the effects hockey had on the late Bob Probert’s brain.
While Probert was known for earning a living with his fists and wracked up 246 fighting majors, it can be argued that body checking and the general physicality of hockey took its toll as well. No matter the cause, Probert ended up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which comes with a whole host of unpleasant symptoms. According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy:
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published of neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.
This is something to be considered when we talk about youth hockey. I’m not saying CTE is going to become a rampant issue among 12-year-olds, because most likely it will not. However, the risk of concussions remains at the younger levels of hockey. As the youth players get older and become more aggressive and are encouraged to hit harder, then we can all start to worry about multiple concussions over the course of even a youth hockey career.
If you’re still not sold on the checking ban for Pee Wees, USA Hockey’s document on its reasoning behind the proposed ban includes this important information:
It was stated at the recent Mayo Clinic “Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion” Symposium that:
- The 11 year old brain is more easily concussed
- The 11 year old brain takes longer to recover from a concussion
- The 11 year old brain is susceptible to more serious long-term effects, if they suffer a concussion
- The 11 year old brain is not developed enough to ‘anticipate’ being hit while also trying to play hockey…the ability to ‘anticipate’ being hit is 50% of avoiding injury
Just digest that for a second. Keep this info in mind when you get to the video from the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Michael Stuart towards the end of this post.
As we continue to learn more about the long-term effects of head injuries, it is important to take measures now to help curb the frequency and severity of head injuries in youth hockey. One of the logical steps is eliminating hits like this one from the youth game:
Hits like that can be found in many of the rinks around the country. Can anyone tell me what the value of something like that is for an 11- or 12-year-old? Those are the type of hits, where the attacking player attempts to “blow up” his opponent, USA Hockey hopes to eliminate from the youth game. There’s no need for them at that age. It is clear, in that instance, that the “victim” was unable to anticipate that kind of contact, cognitively. More stringent penalties against hits as shown above will help, but education can help limit those instances altogether.
By encouraging and teaching body contact at a younger age, players will learn earlier that earth-shattering hits are not necessary to separate the opponent from the puck. There are more efficient ways to get the puck away from an opposing player. By implementing body contact earlier, the hope is that the younger players will become smarter in how they give and receive body checks in order to decrease the likelihood of injury.
If you haven’t yet, you have to read this wonderfully written piece on head injuries and body contact in hockey by Sean Conboy of PittsburghMagazine.com. In his article, Conboy embedded this video from YouTube:
This caption that accompanied the video:
Don’t think head trauma is a concern at the youth level? Don’t think young kids imitate NHL stars? Look at the scrums going on in this video. Looks like a bunch of mini Matt Cookes.
I’m so glad Conboy brought both this video to light. Yes, our young players are imitating their icons. There is an example set by NHL players, but it is important for parents and coaches to remind their son or daughter that certain plays in the NHL are dirty. Certain hits are dirty. Certain players are dirty. It all starts with education and common sense. By educating our youth players on not only technique, but ethics, if you will, they may be able to better understand the game as a whole.
One of the most alarming things about both videos is that they serve as a bit of glorification of malicious hits and retaliation in youth hockey. Some adult posted those videos and in one even took the time to put the thing to music… if you call Drowning Pool music. Not to mention that the first video and many, many of the hits in the second video were not legal checks even now, with body checking allowed. How many charging, boarding, cross checking, elbowing, roughing and hits from behind penalties are there? Well, I counted about 24 infractions in the “highlight reel” myself. Maybe USA Hockey could use that for an instructional video called “Don’t Do Any Of This”.
Now I guess I’m glad the videos were posted to help me illustrate a point, but at the same time, I basically had to watch these videos through a perpetual wince.
These aren’t the only videos available. There are plenty. I stopped after about three. We can’t fix this problem if parents and coaches are encouraging the behavior illustrated in the two videos. It starts from the ground up. USA Hockey can’t go to every youth hockey player and tell them what’s right and wrong on the ice. That responsibility is put into the hopefully capable hands of the youth coach.
I was a young hockey player once who loved to mix it up like the kids in those videos, but every time I did, I got an earful from my dad or one of my other coaches. My father, who was also my head coach for much of my youth, certainly wasn’t bragging to his friends about how great his 11-year-old was at defending the goaltender. He never encouraged retaliation, checks from behind, or big hits at all. Like many youth coaches out there, and I promise you there are very many, my dad promoted fundamentals and having fun. It is the few that preach physicality and intimidation at the younger ages that shouldn’t be allowed within 500 feet of a hockey rink. The same goes for parents that encourage their kids to play a “tough” brand of hockey at age 11. That’s not what its about, people. Not at that age, at least.
In addition to educating the young players, it is extremely important for parents and coaches to educate themselves on the injury risks of hockey and things like concussion symptoms. That goes for parents of hockey players at any level. There’s plenty of information available through USA Hockey, but parents shouldn’t be afraid to consult their family doctor as well. Arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible is only going to help.
Hockey players at most ages try to act tough and play through injuries that they shouldn’t. There is absolutely no benefit to letting an injured youth hockey player continue to play, especially if they are concussed. USA Rugby has a very tough stance on returning to play after suffering a head injury. Perhaps this is something hockey should also adopt. The onus is on the parents and the coaches when a player suffers an injury. Be the adult in that situation and take the proper measures to keep the player safe.
Let me be clear, I don’t want to see body checking, or even fighting (at the junior and pro levels), taken out of the game. I don’t think anyone actually does. We know injuries are going to happen at every level of the game. Some will be avoidable, many will not. However, USA Hockey is hoping to take measures to limit the amount of injuries occurring among our 11- and 12-year-old players. I only see that as a positive.
You can’t have a post about safety without involving one of the smartest people involved in the game of hockey. Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer and professor of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, has three sons that have played professional hockey including Atlanta Thrashers defensemen Mark and Buffalo Sabres farmhand Colin. I’ve met Dr. Stuart several times and he’s as passionate about the game as anyone, but he’s most passionate about keeping players safe.
Here’s one last video where Dr. Stuart discusses some of the safety reasoning behind USA Hockey’s potential rule change:
As Dr. Stuart says, there is a three-fold increase in the risk of concussions and severe concussions in Pee Wee players allowed to check. As you already learned the 11-year-old brain is more susceptible to concussions and takes longer to recover. That’s putting our 11- and 12-year-olds at a decently high risk for very little reward.
As I will always say with this topic, it is important to fully educate yourself before jumping to conclusions. USA Hockey has provided many resources, found here, that can help you better understand the decision behind the potential delay on checking in youth hockey.
This won’t be the last post on the topic, but my hope is that hockey fans and parents understand the importance of keeping our youth players safe and also educating them on the proper way to play the game.
As always, your opinions are welcome in the comments. Please feel free to chime in on this topic below or on Facebook.
Rob Schmit also contributed to this post.