Hockey players who learn to bodycheck at younger ages do not have lower injury or concussion rates than those who start checking later, new research has found.
The findings, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, call into question the oft-cited, but unproven, theory that children who learn to bodycheck sooner will become more skilled at it, enabling them to better avoid injury.
The study is the latest piece of evidence highlighting the risks of introducing bodychecking at younger ages and should lead to policy changes to delay checking in youth hockey, said Carolyn Emery, co-chair of the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre at the University of Calgary.
"The evidence is clear. There's no need for another study," said Dr. Emery, lead author of the study. "The issue is that opinion currently is informing policy."
The debate over violence and injury in hockey has reached a fever pitch in Canada in recent months after high-profile NHL players, including Sidney Crosby, suffered serious concussions, and reports of brawls, vicious fights and severe injuries in youth hockey leagues surfaced across the country.
While many safety advocates and sports experts are calling for better controls to reduce injury at young and professional hockey levels, there are many vocal critics within the hockey community who suggest more rules and regulations aren't necessary.
Dr. Emery said the latter group has traditionally held the most sway.
"There's a culture and the decision-making is influenced by that culture and also heavily by opinions," she said.
In the new study, Dr. Emery and her colleagues analyzed Alberta hockey teams, where bodychecking was introduced when players were 11 to 12, at the peewee level, and Quebec teams that started bodychecking at ages 13 to 14, the bantam level.
They found that injury and concussion rates between the teams were nearly identical at the bantam level, despite the fact the Alberta teams had two years of bodychecking experience at that point.
Of the 995 Alberta bantam players studied, there were 272 injuries and 51 concussions over 96,907 player hours. Among the bantam players in Quebec, there were 244 injuries and 49 concussions over 85,464 player hours. Head and shoulder injuries were the most common type.
Dr. Emery highlighted the risks bodychecking poses to peewee players and how introducing checking at bantam levels could save hundreds of children from concussions and other serious injuries.
She led a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year that found peewee players on teams that allow bodychecking have a threefold higher risk of injury and concussion compared to peewee players that don't check.
At the same time, researchers found the risk of injury that caused bantam players to miss more than seven days of playing time was 33 per cent lower among players that had two years of bodychecking experience.
Dr. Emery said that finding must be considered along with other evidence, such as last year's JAMA study, which suggest younger players who are introduced to bodychecking when they are 11 to 12 are more likely to suffer serious injuries than their peers who don't bodycheck.
Despite the continuing problems involving hockey and injuries, Dr. Emery said there are some signs things are changing for the better. She pointed to the Ontario Hockey Federation's recent decision to ban bodychecking in recreational hockey.
"That certainly will result in decreased risk of concussion and injury," she said.