Parents of young hockey players – and anyone else who loves Canada’s national winter sport – should take some time to reflect as they watch the men’s Olympic hockey games in Sochi (and hopefully a Canada-U.S. rematch for the gold).
Because international rules and referees call for strict penalties for fighting, the players will have to focus on playing hockey – which isn’t always the case for NHL games (remember that line brawl that broke out as soon as the puck dropped in the Vancouver Canucks-Calgary Flames game in mid-January?)
If you watch hockey with your children, it’s worth noting: When fights break out, do you shout words of encouragement for the fourth lines sent out to start the game? Do your words and body language scream “now THIS is going to be a great hockey game”?
That type of response to violence in hockey tells our children that fighting in sports is not just okay, but good. It sends kids a very powerful message that violence in the way to get what you want.
How widespread is the problem?
As a neurosurgeon at a Level 1 trauma centre in downtown Toronto, I have seen thousands of people with brain damage caused by trauma, tumours, strokes and degenerative diseases. When the damage is done from a brain injury, the brain is never the same, no matter what the best medicine or neurosurgery can offer.
In Canada, ice hockey is the main cause of sports-related traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions. My own research has found there are slightly more than five concussions for every 100 NHL games. There are 60,000 to 70,000 hockey-related concussions in Canada altogether every year. (There are 570,000 players registered with Hockey Canada).
We also know that for young people, the risk of suffering a concussion rises as soon as body contact is allowed. In Ontario, that’s in the Atom league of nine- and 10-year-olds.
What can the NHL do?
I believe that we need to keep kids active in sport and at the same time keep them as safe as possible. Hockey is no exception.
So, prevention is the key. One way to aid prevention is to address a multitude of rules in the NHL. Probably the most popular example is the head-hitting rule. Another one would be rules around fighting, since these are two of the major mechanisms that lead to things like brain injury.
These rules need to be enforced more strictly and with more severe consequences for aggressive players and their teams.
Whatever is done at a professional level in sports is emulated almost immediately by children who idolize their heroes. NHL players also have to be aware of this and set a better example for our kids.
What can parents do?
Children pick up on unsaid messages at a very young age. They incorporate unsaid messages into their own behaviour, and their own relationships with other people, at school, the playground and the hockey arena. So we need to tell them that fighting isn’t required to make a hockey game exciting. If we continue to condone fighting in sports, our children will think it’s okay to treat people badly in other ways, such as bullying. Research has shown that how we treat other people can be hard-wired into the brain at a young age and can be very hard to change.
I think we need to have a broader perspective when we watch sports about what messages we give our kids. What’s not said can be equally or more important than what is said.
Remember how exciting it was in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics, how we were all glued to the TV when the two best teams in men’s hockey squared off for the gold, skating, passing and shooting rather than punching, hitting and wrestling?
Gov.-Gen. David Johnston has called violence in the NHL “anti-Canadian,” but hockey truly is a beautiful game.
Dr. Michael Cusimano is a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital, a researcher in the hospital’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, and a professor of neurosurgery, education and public health at the University of Toronto.