Last weekend, Hockey Canada announced its board of directors voted to eliminate body-checking from the peewee level nationwide. USA Hockey is headed into its third season with no checking in peewee after making a similar decision in 2010, while local governing bodies in Quebec have had no body checking in peewee since 1986. Hockey Alberta and Hockey Nova Scotia had also planned for peewee checking bans just prior to Hockey Canada’s announcement.
Like USA Hockey, Hockey Canada will deal with a healthy amount of backlash, and already has. However, when armed with their mountain of medical and cognitive research, it’s the absolute right move and the game will be better because of it.
Now each of the largest hockey governing bodies in the world have made the challenging, yet progressive decision to protect younger players. Similar measures have been enacted in Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. People whose sole jobs are to find ways to make the game better did not come to this decision lightly and without every possible angle reviewed. This is the way of the future. It sure took us long enough to get here.
In addition to providing a safer game for 10- and 11-year-old players, raising the checking age to the bantam level allows more time to focus on hand skills, which are of key importance to any hockey players game. Passing, stickhandling, shooting and skating are the key skills in which players have to improve.
We’re not just talking about the top-end kids. Many kids will quit sports because they aren’t having fun anymore. A lot of that is tied to the actions of adults, from bad coaches, to overbearing parents. Another big reason that 75 percent of kids drop out of sports is because they aren’t excelling and that takes a lot of the fun away. An emphasis on fun, while aiding a player’s improvement goes a long way to keeping kids engaged in sports.
Right now, USA Hockey’s membership from one age group to the next dips under 5 percent annually from peewee to bantam, which is not uncommon from other sports. Over the last five years (not including 2012-13), the average annual difference between peewee and bantam is 2,410 players — just over 12,000 players total — over the last five years. In each of the lower age groups, membership tends to rise from one to the next.
What will be interesting to watch is what, if any, impact the checking ban will have on membership over the next few years. Will it keep kids in the game longer? Or will the attrition rates continue to mirror the national averages? It’s tough to know for sure, but it’s something that’s worth watching.
When USA Hockey pulled the trigger on its checking ban in 2010, it was a move that strongly considered safety, but the tipping point came when the cognitive research showed just how crucial the 11- and 12-year-old ages were for skill acquisition. It’s at those ages where a larger number of players are putting together how to stickhandle properly, how to pass and shoot and where their creativity begins to flourish.
Long-term athlete development experts have pinpointed the ages of 9 to 12 as the prime window for skill acquisition (a lot of that research is available here).
With that research in mind, USA Hockey’s player development experts viewed a series of peewee hockey games and examined that players were far more inclined to focus on the checking aspects of the game than the skill aspects. There was little regard for the puck. Additionally, in my own experience and one that has been echoed by some of USA Hockey personnel in conversations on this topic, of the most common utterances from the stands where parents were watching peewee games was, “Hit him.” Not play the puck, not pass it, not shoot… “Hit him.” And we wonder why parents ruin youth sports.
While examining non-checking squirts, there was more focus on playing with the puck, trying to make plays with it and the younger kids were showing more creativity. According to USA Hockey, extending that type of play for two years, where the puck is the priority and not the hit, could lead to more well-rounded skills and gives creativity more time to grow within each player.
It takes the focus away from hitting and the fear away from being hit. There’s a concern that this will lead to players playing with their head down. Well, last I checked, it helps if you can see where you’re going. Additionally, the best way a player learns to keep his head up is through repetition. A player shouldn’t have to learn the hard way by getting his bell rung at age 11.
There is some legitimate concern that these decisions were only made in an effort to help the best players improve. Undoubtedly, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey want to see those top-end players continue to improve their skills and perhaps become even better hockey players. There’s really nothing wrong with that. The skill development aspect may not matter for a lot of kids, but as mentioned before, it might help keep some interested for longer.
What matters for all kids no matter their skill level, however, is safety.
Dr. Carolyn Emery has done the preeminent research on body checking in youth hockey. You can read all of it here, but the most important bit of evidence she found was that body checking increased injury three-fold in a check league versus a non-check league with 11- and 12-year-olds in the categories of concussion, severe injury and severe concussion. So we’re not just talking about bumps and bruises.
She studied 76 peewee teams with 1046 players in Quebec where there was no checking, and 76 peewee teams with 1,108 players in Alberta where checking was allowed. That more children were injured in check leagues than non-check leagues is hardly a surprise, but a 300 percent increase in severe injury is an alarming level of risk to put our 11- and 12-year-old hockey players up against.
Opponents of the rule, which notably included veritable blowhard Don Cherry last week, have yet to provide contrary scientific evidence that this move, which is being made by the two largest hockey governing bodies in hockey, is a mistake.
Cherry’s rant from his Coach’s Corner segment from May 25, is actually a pretty sound summation of the biggest criticisms of the body checking rule. Cherry, who said Hockey Canada “will be sorry” for making this move, provided some excellent points that would’ve probably helped had he had any research to back them up.
“It would be perfect if all the kids went along [through the minor league levels], with no hitting, and went into a league with no hitting,” Cherry said. “But what’s going to happen is these kids are going to go up to [age] 13, and then they’re going to go in with kids that hit.
“And they don’t know how to protect themselves, they’re going to go out there…when you’re not hitting, you have your head down.”
The one point that every opponent seems to go back to is that injuries will increase dramatically at the bantam level. In theory, due to the size disparity of the players at those ages, it seems as though it’s a good argument. The science, however, says otherwise.
Dr. Emery performed a study on this very topic at the University of Calgary. Utilizing data from 62 bantam teams and 976 players in Quebec against 68 teams in Alberta with 985 players, Emery found that players moving up from non-checking peewee leagues to bantam suffered a similar rate to those that arrived from checking peewee leagues. Not more, not less, almost the same.
According to the study (which is summarized here), “There were 272 injuries (51 concussions) in Alberta, compared to 244 injuries (49 concussions) reported in Quebec.”
The one point the study does concede however is a 33 percent increase in severe injuries in Quebec, categorizing severe as the player needed to miss over a week of hockey. That’s a concern, but when you look at the concussion numbers among bantams as well as the fact that there’s a 300 percent increase in injury at the peewee level, 33 percent isn’t so bad.
Not surprisingly, Emery’s bantam study also concluded that players that previously reported injury and first-year bantam players were at greater risk of being injured in both provinces. So yes, the size disparity matters, only not nearly as much as opponents are making it out to be.
In a statement released along with her findings, Emery said:
“I hope this study informs policy makers in youth ice hockey regarding the scientific evidence to support the delay of bodychecking in games until Bantam. Our research supports the findings of 14 out of 15 other studies that show a greater risk of injury in a bodychecking league compared to leagues that do not allow bodychecking. In addition, we have clearly shown that there is no injury or concussion spike in Bantam hockey that would offset the 300 per cent increase in injury risk and 400 per cent increase in concussion risk that we see in Pee Wee leagues that allow body checking.”
Those frightening percentages are just so impossible to ignore. There’s certainly concern that players will be less prepared when they advance to checking leagues in bantam, but these numbers, along with 14 of 15 other studies, had to make what USA Hockey and Hockey Canada did as easy a decision as any they’ve made for the benefit of the game.
Is is also important to note that there’s not a ban on body contact, which is different from body checking. Angling a player into the boards and incidental contact go unpenalized, or are supposed to at the lower levels.
USA has also instituted new coaching education programs to help coaches at non-checking levels teach their players proper methods of body contact and also how to protect themselves from contact. Hockey Canada, which worked closely with officials from USA Hockey on this maneuver, is instituting “a mandatory national checking and instructional resource program to support the progressive implementation of checking skills at the Novice to Peewee levels to better prepare players for body-checking at the Bantam and Midget level.”
Both governing bodies are doing their best to cover all their bases as opposed to simply banning checking outright and not equipping their coaches with resources on how to deal with the change.
This is a move both entities had to make. It’s one that they can’t go back on and it’s going to make the game better.