Head Injuries and the Pee Wee Checking Debate

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.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in NHL, USA Hockey, Youth Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Head Injuries and the Pee Wee Checking Debate

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am totally against this and don’t understand the rationale. There was a study done in Ontario over a long period of time that found players that started checking at 13 instead of 11 will actually suffer the same number of injuries, but more severe. the link to teh article is here:

    http://slapshot.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/researchers-evaluate-who-is-old-enough-for-body-checks/?scp=6&sq=hockey%20injuries&st=cse

    The reasoning is that at 13 the size disparity amongst the players is much greater as some kids ar 6′ tall at that age and others maybe only 5′. Players at 11 are generally closer in size to each other. Learning body contact against players your own size will actually reduce serious injuries.

    USA Hockeys reasoning is seriously flawed in their own presentation, for example their point that there is 4x as many injuries in a checking lague vs a no-check league. Of course there is.

    There is always going to be injuries in this game and to try and legislate them all out is ridiculous. Are some of these hits vicious and uncalled for, absolutely, but they should have suspension issued and harsh punishment in that area is what’s needed.

    How will we compete against Canadian teams at these ages? They are not changing, though Quebec has this rule already and I would say it certainly has not helped them develop players as the OHL and WHL are way ahead of the QMJHL at this point.

  2. Chris Peters says:

    Thank you for the comment and providing the link. What the article fails to understand or acknowledge is that body contact will be implemented at the younger ages (including 8 & unders) to get players used to it. Through the restructuring of the rules, the 13-year-olds will have been taught from a young age how to give and receive contact. It’s not like coaches will stop teaching how to deliver and receive checks. A big part of this rule is to try and rid youth hockey of the hits you saw in the videos, the ones that “de-cleat” or “blow up” an opponent.

    The article also ignores that a reason to delay the body checking is to allow more time for the young players to acquire the skills necessary to be a successful hockey player. Passing, shooting, puck handling and skating are all far more important in the long term than checking.

    We’ll never fully eliminate injuries from the game, and that’s fine.

    It is an obvious statement that players are 3-4 times as likely to be injured in a checking league as opposed to non-check, but the question is: Is it worth knowingly putting 11- and 12-year-olds at three times the risk when it isn’t entirely necessary from a skill-development standpoint? It’s actually just as obvious to say that injuries will be worse when players get older because of the size disparity.

    I don’t get the argument of how Americans will compete against Canadian kids. That’s not the goal of USA Hockey off the bat. It’s to produce better players in general and this is a way they see fit to do that. Even Brendan Shanahan, one of the toughest and hardest playing guys to put on a hockey jersey, did not begin checking until age 13. If this is something that can be used to improve our players’ skill development and keep more kids playing the game, I think its worth it.

    I really appreciate your comment. This topic needs debate.

  3. Everything is accurate except Probert being part of this discussion. He was basically a WBC boxer against guys without boxing gloves.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To clarify a couple things the study shows that the injuries amongst 13 year olds that start checking at 13 are more severe, not injuries to all 13 year olds. The study looked at kids that began checking at many different ages. As a coach to say we are going to teach players how to accept body contact in practice, but never do it at game speed is not realistic. I think that is a carrot being thrown to people that would argue the other side.

    To say that competition against similiar Canadian teams at younger ages isn’t a large part of many programs is naive, it is. Also the whole goal of the USA Hockey international program is to compete against Canada, and others.

    In talking to coaches that are actually still coaching the game, unlike many of the people on the committe that is responsible for this proposal, there is very little support for this. I agree we need to teach the skills to players, but I would argue that body contact is a skill. To be able to use those hand skills and footwork, etc. without body contact present will not get a player to far in this game.

    USA Hockey has increased its medals won and players in the NHL so much in the last few years is the system really broken? All the players that won a silver in Vancouver, the U20 gold last year, the last 2 U18 gold medals and the U17 gold last year, they checked at 11 and came through the same system seems like its doing OK.

    • Josh says:

      Anonymous writes:

      “As a coach to say we are going to teach players how to accept body contact in practice, but never do it at game speed is not realistic.”

      That is not the meaning I got from Chris…

      Chris writes:

      “What the article fails to understand or acknowledge is that body contact will be implemented at the younger ages (including 8 & unders) to get players used to it. Through the restructuring of the rules, the 13-year-olds will have been taught from a young age how to give and receive contact.”

      The key phrase there is “restructuring of the rules”. As a level 3 USA Hockey referee, there is a fair amount of room for change here. A “body-check” is currently defined (roughly as I don’t have my book in front of me) as contact with the puck carrier to seperate the puck including an overt arm, hip, or shoulder motion. Under the existing rule, “riding” the puck carrier into the boards so that the puck seperates from him, or pushing him off the puck are both body checks, and by rule penalties in non-checking classifications such as mite or squirt. However as a matter of practicality, there is a chasm between making a hockey play with the use of your arms and shoulder, and trying to put an opponent through the boards. Currently the line between checking and non-checking lies almost entirely on the side of “no-contact”. If the proposal is to move that line somewhere closer to “no hitting” by changing the definition of what a body check is, then a fair amount of contact that used to be considered a penalty in non-check classifications might be allowed. A fair amount of contact within the scope of seperating the opponent from the puck can be allowed without allowing the full on “punish” your opponent hit. Watch an NHL game — even at the NHL level, many more of the “checks” are simply riding a guy into the boards or pushing him off the puck, so that he cannot continue with the puck rather than delivering a huge hit.

  5. Chris Peters says:

    No argument here on Probert. His story coming to light this week though does force us to examine the effect of head injuries in the long term. When a player is concussed on multiple occasions, as is very possible at every level of hockey, the likelihood of developing CTE increases. Scary thought.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry wanted to add on to my last post.

    I would say let the USA Hockey membership vote. Or have non-check and checking leagues at U12. I can guarantee you the memebership would vote it down and any non-check leagues would have many fewer kids signed up than checking leagues.

    • Reg says:

      I pretty much disagree with everything Anonymous said, except for his last point. There are bunch of us parents who aren’t concerned with competing against Canadian teams, attempting to have our kids get a hockey scholarship, or even having our kids be superstar hockey players. We just want our kids to be able to play a game they love without unnecessary long term cognitive risks. The problem for us is, once a kid turns 11, it’s checking (and the ridiculous “blow up” hit mentality displayed in videos above) or forgoing organized hockey – ironically, until they’re 18 and can play in recreational non-checking adult leagues. Why aren’t there non-checking leagues for kids who want it? Maybe Anonymous is right that fewer kids would sign up for those leagues, but there’s no reason kids should have to be forced choose between elevated risks to their brains and playing a sport they love. Obviously, hockey will always carry risks, but it seems that there should be some middle ground options.

  7. Jeff Walzer says:

    One area that been neglected are the refs. This was my son’s first year in Peewee and after a few games it was evident that the refs were never consistent in making calls with hits to the head, or even kids extending their arms into the faces and heads of other players when checking, which they’re not allowed to do. It’s frustrating to see the safety of kids t the mercy of ref who can’t make the calls like the rule book says. I’ve seen in the crease and intentional offsides cooed with more consistency this year that anything else.

  8. Mike Maynard says:

    Three problems with this, one USA Hockey can not control which is the glorification of over the top violence that these kids are exposed to, often repeatedly throughout the day, video games clearly marked as “mature” being played by immature children is the biggest culprit. This all ties into a lack of parenting or just bad parenting. The other two issues in which youth hockey can attempt to control is the lack of proper coaching and officiating. This is problem with all types of youth team sports, I have seen it firsthand and the mostly with hockey and baseball. Many coaches are unable or simply unwilling to coach the little details of the game, you know that thing called fundamentals. Over half the coaches are just out there to provide lil’ Johnny a brief time share with good old dad. For every good coach who knows the rules and teaches the little details there are 3 others who do not. Lastly, the problem finding quality officiating is becoming worse and worse. With today tight budgets, too many leagues simply can not afford to pay monies to get dedicated officials. I attend way too many youth games where the referee is nothing but a glorified baby setter, just there to earn a little gas or beer money. They barely know the rules themselves and know little how to properly enforce them. One or two coaches and/or referees “clinics” are not not enough. These kids all need to afforded the opportunity to have the same quality coaching and officiating.

  9. Rob says:

    Alberta is also voting to get rid of it this summer. So that could be 2 provinces…and with the US, the others will follow suit. Mucho US teams go to Canada for tourneys, now some won’t – its about the money, they’ll change it. This is about the parents, NOT the coaches, parents allow coaches to get away with this type of coaching….pull your kid, talk to the coach, talk to the other parents – you ego will be fine, make sure your kids safety is too

  10. Woody says:

    Honestly, it’s hard to read this comment without thinking about what is going on in the NHL these days. The leadership in the NHL offices has made it clear that hitting to the head is an acceptable way to hurt, I guess they call it check, an opponent. Flying elbows to the head, knocking players out for weeks, months if not their careers, result in minor suspensions, if any suspension at all. This trickles down to kids, who watch the NHL regularly, and take these players as their models on how to play the game. I don’t have kids, but if I did, right now, I’d honestly have to think long and hard about whether to ever get them into hockey. I used to think my cousins were whimps because they quit hockey when checking was allowed, but now, I considered their viewpoint a lot more reasonable. One went on to become a doctor, the other an architect. Maybe they still would have, but right now, with it being acceptable to target an opponents head, and put their basic function for the rest of their life at risk and deem it an acceptable play, I don’t think that’s worth the risk.

    I’m with Reg on this one. At least make non contact available. Maybe kids wouldn’t want to. Would not want to be called whimps, I know I would have thought that at 13. But then, I didn’t realize that you could permanently damage your brain and ruin your life in a sport that for 99% of people is just for “fun” and recreation.

  11. Bruce says:

    I have looked at the data, and as far as I know there is no good info on the rates of injuries in bantams when they have had no experience in checking. I have seen hundreds of peewee games, and very few concussions or other serious injuries. On the other hand I have seen many such injuries in bantams, mostly because the kids can be much bigger, faster, and testosterone-driven. I honestly think that a small first-year bantam who has never experienced checking would be put in a very dangerous situation in games with aggressive kids the size and speed of high school players. Peewees have much less of a size disparity and tend to be smaller and slower, so serious injuries are much more rare.

    The idea that more body contact will be allowed may or may not be the case, but 13-year-old refs are going to be making the calls so it certainly won’t be consistent. And practicing body contact in practice is a very different world from experiencing for the first time a lit-up 150-lb bantam coming at game speed. It is a safety issue, but in my mind it is totally not clear what is safer overall. Why is USA hockey experimenting with my kid?

    • Chris Peters says:

      Bruce, thanks for your comment. Did you read my first post on skill development as the main reason to delay body checking?

      If you haven’t, please do. USA Hockey isn’t experimenting with your kid. The goal is to make your kid a better hockey player. Based on research, the more focus placed on skill development, the better your child and other youths will be due to the ages of 9-12 being the prime window for skill acquisition.

      The U.S. lags behind other hockey nations like Canada, Russia and Sweden in terms of producing highly-skilled players. We have no Crosbys or Ovechkins or Sedins. By putting the emphasis on fundamentals and skills, the hope is that the U.S. will catch up to some degree. It won’t make every kid elite, but it should help them learn the most vital aspects of the game better.

      It’s potentially a revolutionary step forward in player development.

  12. Anonymous says:

    As a parent, I have to decide the acceptable risk level of any sport for my child. My son loves hockey and plays in a non-check pee wee league. He just turned 8 and has already suffered his first concussion from a hit that could have easily been posted in one of the videos above.

    I am currently struggling with the question of whether or not to allow him to continue to play Hockey at all. I only want him to be able to enjoy hockey on a recreational level with as little risk as possible for head injury. I do not care if he can compete against the Canadians or anyone else for that matter. I am not interested in my son playing at the collegiate level or in the NHL.

    The only solution I can come up with would be to have two separate leagues of hockey for the pee wee level. One would be purely recreational that strictly enforces non-checking and the other would teach checking for players and parents who want to take the risk of trying to compete at a higher level in the future.

    Brain damage from repeated concussions is a serious concern for me. We can no longer ignore the repercussions an adult can have from these injuries much less a child who’s brain is still developing.

    As a parent with the responsibility of my children’s welfare, I will probably will take my son out of hockey until we have the option to participate in a league that truly enforces non-checking and blow up hits instead of looking the other way because, after all, hockey is a contact sport.

    Will

    • Chris Peters says:

      Will,

      I think everyone understands your concern. USA Hockey did vote to delay checking until Bantam and has also strengthened the rules against contact to the head in all levels of amateur hockey. There are strides being taken to make the game safer, but as you are well aware you can’t legislate injuries out of the game. Hopefully your son can enjoy the game in a non-contact fashion until he reaches an age in which your family can make a decision on whether or not to continue to allow him to play. I know it’s a tough decision for a lot of families and I think your concern is shared by many people out there.

  13. Anonymous says:

    In the post above, I was generically using the term pee wee for the overall kids hockey programs. (Pee wee football was the term we used some thirty years ago when I was a child playing football).

    I realize that it is a mistake to say my 8 year old is in and the pee wee level when he is actually playing in the mite level. Sorry for any confusion.

    Will

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