A landmark study released on June 8 revealed that 11- and 12- year old hockey players in leagues that allow bodychecking are 2.5 times more likely to get hurt and 3.5 times more likely to suffer a mild traumatic brain injury -mTBI also known as a concussion. In Quebec, players do not bodycheck until bantam ages (ages 13 to 14), and even then it is only introduced at the elite levels of the game. Pee wee (ages 11 and 12) is when bodychecking begins in Alberta. The joint University of Calgary, McGill University, and the University of Laval study tracked 2,200 pee wee hockey players from both provinces for the entire 2007-2008 season to measure injury frequency. The findings of this study were published in the recent edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This study 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 coincide with statements made by Toronto neurosurgeon, Charles Tator at a Hockey Canada sponsored concussion seminar who said there has been too much emphasis on ‘rock’em, sock’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.

Indeed, 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 seasons. 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. 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 Hockey Canada should take note. Does Hockey Canada, a publically funded organization, have the credibility, leadership and commitment to address this serious public health and safety problem? The challenge resides with Hockey Canada! Its failure to act may very well lead to a situation where governments may have to intervene.

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
June 9, 2010.

Note: The author played 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.