On Saturday, May 25, 2013, Hockey Canada’s board of directors voted overwhelmingly to remove body checking from peewee hockey across Canada in an effort to limit the health risks to kids ages 11 and 12. Although board members voted in favour of the ban in landslide fashion 42-2, with only two Saskatchewan delegates voting against it, the announcement spawned a heated debate. Some say this is a good step in the right direction to protecting our youth while others are vehemently against it. Don Cherry has been adamantly against the ban stating that it is a “Terrible idea” and that we will be sorry.
The decision to ban body checking at the peewee level has been a topic of debate and consideration for some time. Quebec instituted a ban at the peewee level decades ago, but it wasn’t until a recently released medical report outlining statistics showing increased risks of head injuries amongst hockey players in Canada at the peewee level, that the debate began to hasten. The report showed a significant jump in head injuries suffered by hockey playing kids ages 11 and 12. At the end of the day, these statistics were just too important to ignore.
Since the announcement of the decision, the most common question I’ve been asked is, “Where do you stand in this debate?” If I had been asked this question three or four years ago, I would have said that I thought it was a bad idea. Over the last four years or so, I’ve been able to really take a step back and look inside hockey and get a better view of how the machine operates. I’ve seen first-hand, and am experiencing first-hand the effects that head injuries can have as life progresses on individuals. It really is a major concern that we really don’t know enough about yet to fool around with. We know that concussions are bad, but we really don’t know what consistent long-term repercussions are. Diagnostics on head injuries are lagging and we are really only starting to peel back the layers on what other illnesses and diseases that head injuries lead to like early-onset dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and severe depression among several other disorders.
To really grab hold of a particular side to the argument, I had to prioritize the situation and look at all the components. When talking about pee wee hockey, the first priority has to be safety. As coaches, parents and administrators, we have to make decisions with the safety of 11 and 12 year olds at the top of the list. Does banning body checking at this level decrease the risk of injuries to the kids? Absolutely. So we can check the first priority off our list. The flip side to this is that we are eliminating the risk for peewee players but greatly increasing the risk to bantam aged players, where all the kids become stronger and faster. This may also be true, and this is where I believe steps need to be taken. Any time you go from zero to sixty, there is going to be a major transition.
When I was in major peewee, I was 5’2 and weighed 90 lbs soaking wet. I remember I was one of the smaller kids on the team. We had several other kids about the same size as me and then we had about six or seven kids who were 6’0 or more and weighed around 140 – 155 lbs. From my experience, and studies support this, the peewee level is where the largest disparity in size exists. This is the stage where some kids are hitting puberty and experiencing rapid growth and others haven’t yet. That year, we had a coach who thought the best way to teach body checking was to run a drill at the end of every practice called, “The Gauntlet”. The gauntlet consisted of all the players lining up around the boards a few feet away from the boards and the first player in line would skate through, getting checked by every player as he passed by. I remember absolutely hating this drill because I was so small. I loved to hit and loved that side of the game, but this drill didn’t bode well for a player of my stature. Eventually, one practice while we running the gauntlet, I was checked into the boards by one of my teammates who was 6’3 and my collarbone snapped in half like a wishbone.
The problem was, my bones were still developing and I was giving up too much weight trying to go head to head with kids 14 inches taller than me and 50 or 60 lbs heavier. Later that year, I suffered a separated shoulder and, as I would find out much later in life, probably a number of slight concussions or “sub-concussions”. Sub-concussions, which are discussed at length in the compelling documentary “Head Games”, are head injuries that currently go undetected but have the impact of regular concussions in a cumulative manner. These sub-concussions are basically any time you have been hit and “See Stars”, “Hear Ringing”, or when the arena gets momentarily brighter.
During a check-up in my days playing pro, a doctor shed a bit of light on sub-concussions when he asked me how many times I had been diagnosed with a concussion. I replied, “three”. He then asked me how many times I had experienced the aforementioned symptoms. I tried to think back and lost count in the hundreds. Seeing stars and hearing ringing used to happen for me many times during a game. He basically told me that all of these hits accumulate and may have long-term effects that I may not experience until my 40s. That always stuck with me. Then, earlier this year I watched “Head Games” and I couldn’t believe it. Everything that doctor told me was being played out and reiterated in this documentary. In the documentary, studies are outlined about the effects of physical contact in sports ranging from football to soccer. They talk about Chronic-Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease that is irreversible and leads to the deterioration of the mental state. Encephalopathy has been directly linked to head injuries and can only currently be measured post-mortem by examining “Tau Protein Stains” in brain tissue.
In recent years, the study of CTE has been accelerated and the brains of several former athletes have been collected and studied to help families answer questions about tragic deaths and behaviours. The brain of former NHL player Bob Probert was studied and showed enormous amounts of the protein stain. Former NHLer Keith Primeau has been instrumental in raising awareness about CTE and lent his hand in the making of the documentary. Several former NFLer’s brains have been examined and show massive staining, including Junior Seau who unexplainably took his own life last year. Examinations of Seau’s brain showed major degeneration despite the fact that Seau had never been diagnosed during his career with a clinically defined concussion. All of this goes to show us that we aren’t even at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the head injury issue in major sports.
Growing up in my era, Junior Seau was superman. We’re talking about a guy who was a perennial pro-bowler and helped revolutionize the linebacker position in football. This guy was famous, made millions and should have had the best life imaginable. Ultimately, in the end, Junior Seau was alone, depressed and suffering from CTE. It really makes you think, was all of it really worth it? Keeping that in mind, Junior Seau is one of the very small fraction of athletes who start playing a sport with a dream in mind that actually get to accomplish that dream. We hear about Seau’s tragic end but what about the millions of other athletes who never make it to the professional levels who are suffering from CTE? If you could go back and ask them, “Hey when you were 11 and 12 years old, playing body contact hockey or full-contact athletics and suffered a concussion, are you glad that you did that?”
Another layer to the medical issue of 11 and 12 year-olds participating in hockey with body checking is that when kids are 11 and 12 it isn’t just their bodies going through a major growth phase, their brains are also in one of the most crucial cognitive development phases. Brain regions that are implicated in social cognition, including parts of prefrontal, parietal and superior temporal cortex, undergo the most pronounced structural changes. With all of this going on, do you really want to risk impacting this development?
The health risk component started me thinking about the debate and which side I might snag onto, I then started to think about the game of hockey and how this might impact player development. I truly do believe that we cannot take body checking completely out of hockey because it is a distinct aspect that defines the sport and gives it a unique identity. Playing hockey, at high levels, comes with an assumed risk and it is an individual choice to play the physical game of hockey. If we were to take hitting out of hockey, the sport would see a major decline in revenues and would ultimately fall off the map with regards to being a major, marketable sport. Hockey, from a financial standpoint, relies heavily upon US markets to keep the game in the black and taking out hitting would severely impact these markets. From my years of playing pro hockey in the states and connecting with the fans, I know for a fact that hockey without hitting just won’t fly.
That being said, the million dollar question remains, “What impact on development will a body checking ban have on hockey?” Don Cherry says that the ban from peewee hockey will have horrific repercussions. He says that we will see more injuries at the bantam level because players are now all stronger and faster and won’t be prepared to deliver and receive hits properly and in a safe manner. With this point he does have some valid merit and concern. Looking into it further, Quebec has had a ban on body checking in pee wee hockey for quite some time and studies show that there isn’t a larger percentage of injuries in bantam hockey in their province when compared, per capita, to bantam in other provinces that have had body checking in peewee hockey up until Saturday.
The other argument I’ve heard is that body checking is a skill and is part of hockey and needs to be taught along with skating, shooting and puck handling. It is true, body checking is a skill, however, it isn’t a skill that is hard to teach or requires years of honing and practice the way that skating and other skills require. Being involved in skill development for the last 12 years, I can tell you that if you give me a year, I can teach your sweet aunt Millie how to deliver and receive a hit.
I believe that there needs to be a transition into hitting. Knowing what has been decided with regards to the ban, the biggest emphasis is now on peewee coaches to prepare their players for the transition into bantam where body checking enters the game. The ban allows peewee coaches to start the process of teaching body checking and more importantly, awareness and how to receive a hit in a controlled environment in practice. Hockey Canada has also stated that kids are going to be transitioned into bantam through mandatory body checking clinics, which is a step in the right direction.
The blueprint is in place in Quebec and they have been able to operate and transition with success for years. Introducing hitting in bantam allows three years, plus two years of controlled prep for hitting in peewee, before kids can be drafted into the major junior leagues such as the OHL. Really, the ban allows kids to catch up in physical development and helps to alleviate a dangerous situation. Critics have harped that the decision is solely political and was made because Hockey Canada has seen a big drop in registration at the peewee level. Even if this was a major factor in the decision, don’t we want more kids playing hockey in Canada?
The ban also opens up other opportunities and endless possibilities with regards to development. When I was a kid in minor peewee, the entire year was consumed with an obsession to throw big hits. All we wanted to do was run wild and hit each other. In reality, I probably regressed as a player in minor pee wee because I wasn’t focused on honing my other, more important skill sets. With the ban, coaches will be able to focus more on developing skating, angling, puck handling and shooting, while setting aside a bit of time each practice to prep for body checking. Once you get past age 12, it is very difficult to change a player’s skating style. Being able to put more emphasis on this skill will have positive effects in the long-term.
At the end of the day, safety has become a major priority at all levels, including the NHL as we have seen with recent and rampant head injury concerns. Since we are only at the beginning of a vast learning curve with regards to head injury and long-term effects, we need to protect hockey players, especially youth hockey players. Is this ban going to affect the way hockey is played in the OHL, NCAA, AHL and NHL? No. The ban merely delays the introduction of body checking by two years, allowing kids to develop more strength required to properly administer clean checks.
Are we only banning hitting at peewee and creating a bigger problem at the bantam level where kids are stronger and faster? Not if we put trust in the system and in coaches to teach and prepare kids for the transition into body checking. In reality, at 13 and 14 years of age, kids are more mature physically and mentally than they are when they are 11 and 12. When you compare kids who are 11 years-old with 13 or 14 year-olds the physical difference is immense. Kids at the peewee level have heads that are still large in proportion to their necks and bodies. There is so much at risk when you don’t have the strength to properly receive a check.
Reading articles about the ban, most of the comments have been from coaches who may or may not have played the game of hockey at a high level and parents who also fall into that category. To really get a good gauge on the debate, more feedback from players who are dealing with the after-effects of head injuries or wives and children of players who are dealing with these effects would be the individuals to ask. You really have to ask yourself, “Knowing that only 17 out of a million kids that start playing hockey ever play a single game in the NHL, do I really want to risk suffering from CTE in my early 40s and live through severe depression and dementia just so I can throw a couple big hits when I’m 11 and 12 years old?” If you can honestly, without any regret, say yes to that question, then I guess this ban is a huge mistake.