The never ending incidents of on ice-thuggery, including hits to the head, a recent one involving QMJHL star Patrice Cormier, along with other factors including body checking in minor hockey, has turned hockey into our most dangerous game. These horrible incidents smack of everything that is wrong with hockey in our country: poor leadership; elitist and exclusionary, lofty and unrealistic expectations; overzealous coaches and parents and no fun and recreational benefits for the players.

The long-term brain damage suffered by Reggie Fleming during his professional playing career, as revealed by researchers at Boston University, should serve as a wake-up call for those Canadians concerned with the health and safety of all players, especially minor leaguers, and the future of the game as we know it. The release of these findings coincided with statements made by Toronto neurosurgeon Charles Tator at the recent Hockey Canada sponsored concussion seminar who said there has been too much emphasis on “sock’em, kill’em type of hockey” in minor hockey. Dr. Tator has been a long-time advocate of findings better ways to make hockey a safer game.

The consequences of traumatic hits to the head speak for themselves. Research done by Dr. Shree Bhalerao, director, medical psychiatry, St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto and Deborah Pink, resident in psychiatry, University of Toronto reveals the following. Traumatic brain injuries, via hits to the head or bodies colliding against the boards or other bodies can cause: post-concussive symptoms (tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, and unremitting headaches); cognitive disorders (distractibility, antisocial behaviours and development difficulties); depression (fatigue, decreased motivation, suicide and significant psychosocial impairments); personality changes (impulsivity, decreased frustration tolerance, inability to socialize, inappropriate use of expletives); increased use of substances and alcohol with the rare consequence of psychosis, anxiety disorders and chronic sleep disorders.

I am sure other studies reveal similar and alarming results.

An emotional debate has been raging for years about our national sport. Should body checking be allowed in minor hockey? According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 8,000 people were treated for hockey related injuries in Ontario hospital emergency rooms in the 2002-2003 season. Based on this rate, more than 25,000 people were injured across the country. In 93 cases of the 8,000, the casualty was admitted to hospital, 15 directly to critical care units.

Among young hockey players (18 and under) 62 percent of the injuries were a result of checking. Injuries caused by body checks were the most common in the 14 to 16 age group, after players have been exposed to body checking for several years.

The decision to allow body checking in minor hockey is unquestionably jeopardizing this wonderful sport and favourite pastime by turning it into our most dangerous game. It is easily argued this practice borders on child abuse. It certainly flies in the face of public health, safety, and injury prevention; it trumps medical science, commonsense, and civility.

Allowing young hockey players to body check, along with a myriad of other factors, in particular, costs, is, as the statistics clearly indicate, driving young players away from the game. The main reason kids play any sport is for fun and recreation. Hitting and the risk of serious injuries, including concussions, remove the motivation. It is shocking to hear enrolment in Hockey Canada approved teams is about 550,000 players, down more than 200,000 from its peak.

Hockey is an inherently dangerous game. Violence degrades the world’s fastest, most physically challenging and most highly skilled game. That said, when medical experts and safety advocates say evidenced-based research show injury-prevention and harm-reduction initiatives are good for the health and safety of the game and the players, everyone, and especially the CHL (Canadian Hockey League), a professional league in its own right, should take note. Need more be said. Hockey is not, and has never been, a law of its own. And contrary to what proponents claim, violence, including fighting, has never been an integral part of the game. Fighting is banned in minor hockey in this country, college hockey in both the U.S. and Canada, in the European leagues, in the Olympics, and in all international play. Banning fighting in all leagues would greatly add to the skill level of the game, by eliminating marginal players in favour of skilled talent.

Hockey Canada, the shill and “business partner” of the professional Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is calling for a safety summit to be held in August. How interesting! The sad and harsh reality is that violence in hockey has been an integral part of the game as long as Hockey Canada and its predecessor organization, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, have been in existence. It is easily argued Hockey Canada, through its relationship with the CHL, has been a willing participant in promoting and condoning violence in hockey for years. A case in point! Patrice Cormier should have been, according to IIHF rules, thrown out of the recent World Junior Championship (WJC) for his violent hit on a Swedish player in an exhibition game leading up to that tournament. Unfortunately, this rule was not enforced. Hockey Canada, regardless of the IIHF, should have taken the initiative and expelled Cormier from tournament play. On an issue of safety, civility, and commonsense, it failed the test. For Hockey Canada, it’s called winning at all costs.

In light of its record and apathy when dealing with violence in the game of hockey, Hockey Canada, a publically funded organization, simply does not have the credibility, leadership, reliability and commitment to address this serious public health and safety problem. Calling for a safety summit smacks of sheer hypocrisy and opportunism and masks many of the challenges and problems confronting minor hockey in this country, which it, Hockey Canada, has so blatantly ignored. Shame on Hockey Canada.

Hopefully, it is not too late to change and save the game of hockey in Canada, which has such strong and historical roots. A major overhaul is needed and soon. Who is up to the challenge?

Emile Therien
Public Health & Safety Advocate
Past President, Canadian Safety Council //Ottawa, Ontario

Note: The author played (albeit many years ago) major junior hockey at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto and collegiate hockey at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He has been a long time advocate for greater safety in all sports. His son Christopher, played college hockey at Providence College in Rhode Island, was a member of the 1994 Canadian Olympic hockey team and played many years in the NHL.