Fraser McLaren of the Toronto Maple Leafs provided a sickening and meaningless sideshow when he dropped Dave Dziurzynski of the Senators in a fight on Wednesday.
It was briefly the talk of the hockey world, and that’s fine. We can debate fighting in pro hockey and will probably be doing so 10 years from now. But there is another, much more important debate that needs to happen. It involves the risks to children from bodychecking in minor hockey.
As a neurologist, Richard Wennberg of Toronto is an expert on brain injury. And as the father of two boys and a girl, he knows something about minor hockey.
He is torn over the question of the right age at which to allow bodychecking.
“I do not think, from everything we know right now, that there is a single course of action that could both (a) maximize children’s safety and (b) maintain the existence of competitive minor hockey in a form similar to what we have known over the past many decades,” he says.
Dr. Wennberg isn’t ready to say Hockey Canada should raise the minimum age – now 11 – at which bodychecking is permitted in “rep” or competitive hockey. And neither are we, though like Dr. Wennberg we are full of doubts, and take seriously the damage done to concussed children and teenagers.
We want to know whether the game can be made safer and smarter without changing the age. We wonder where the groundswell for change is from the thousands upon thousands of hockey families. We hesitate to demand a firm rule that so many families haven’t yet seen the need for.
It is not only hockey that faces scrutiny. Football is under the spotlight after several autopsies revealed severe brain damage in some former players. Soccer, with its repeated subconcussive blows of balls on heads, will feel more and more pressure to change.
“Should we have contact sports at all?” asks Dr. Wennberg, a neurology professor at the University of Toronto, and a neurologist at the University Health Network’s Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital. “Are we going to look back 50 years from now and think, ‘Holy smokes, what were we doing?’”
We’re not ready to toss out the contact from sports, partly because sport authorities are showing they’re willing to evolve. They may yet find ways to reduce risk, and preserve the essence of their sport.
It is practically a religion in Canadian minor hockey that early bodychecking is essential safety training.
Some hockey observers say it should start at five or six. It did when Dr. Wennberg, 53, played as a child. (There was no minimum age until the mid-1980s.)
“The game played at a high level requires that half of your attention at all times is directed to self-preservation. It becomes increasingly natural. You’d never go into the boards straight on. You’d live with a fear that someone would smash you from behind, or that if your head is down someone’s going to annihilate you. Maybe it’s a lost skill.”
The U.S. became heretics; 13 is the minimum checking age, up from 11, as of last season. It’s a possible model for Canada because it addresses concerns about teaching hitting early. From age eight through 12, teams teach children how to hit, and how to absorb or avoid a hit – but only in practice. And coaches are being trained to teach these techniques.
Research from Canada was crucial when USA Hockey raised the bodychecking age. University of Calgary epidemiologist Carolyn Emery reported that three times as many injuries and concussions occurred among Alberta 11-year-olds playing contact hockey as among Quebec 11-year-olds playing non-contact.
But Dr. Wennberg says the news media did not take up a key finding from Dr. Emery’s research: that, in 13-year-olds who had two years of bodychecking experience, the risk of injury was reduced by 33 per cent, compared with 13-year-olds who had played only non-contact hockey before.
“It suggests that if we’re going to allow it at all, maybe we should allow it earlier to prevent more serious injuries later on.”
Intimidation wins. Don’t just separate the player from the puck. Separate the player from his head.
Paul Carson, vice-president of hockey development for Hockey Canada, which oversees more than 500,000 youth in minor hockey, suggests a root cause of head injuries is not age but a win-at-all-costs mentality from some coaches.
It’s hard to justify protecting 13-year-olds by exposing 11-year-olds to risk. And why expose 13-year-olds? Their right to consent to risk is hardly more developed than an 11-year-old’s. Maybe the real question is whether the age should be raised to 15, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.
It’s an enormous step to take, especially when Canadian families with children in hockey have yet to call for it. They may be in denial, they may be swamped by an insular culture, but they have a right to a say, too.
Canadian hockey should be given a chance to prove it can make contact hockey safer for those under 15. It should do more to monitor the incidence of head injuries in young players. It does have a new no head-contact rule. Even a so-called “face wash” – putting a glove in someone’s face – brings four minutes in penalties. Any accidental contact to the head brings a penalty. Tough enforcement may bring some change.
Richard Wennberg the hockey parent and Richard Wennberg the neurologist co-exist uneasily. “It’s going to make me look like I’m Don Cherry,” he says. “But if there’s any reason we still think sports are important, and we still admire hockey with hitting, how can we take it totally away from kids?”
If our love of the national game harms children, we are not good custodians. But should we always protect children and teenagers rather than expose them to risk and experience? That kind of protection comes with its own cost.