It remains Canada’s national sport, a way to forge our identity, feed our passion. But for parents worried about the health of their children, hockey is no longer the game of choice.
Faced with a near daily stream of new research about the alarming and often long-term effects of concussions on youth, more and more parents are balking at hockey’s dangers, which includes a significantly higher risk of attempting suicide; links to anxiety and depression; and such emotional and cognitive symptoms as disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating, frustration and forgetfulness. Confronted with all that, parents are enrolling their children in seemingly safer sports.
While the high cost of outfitting a player and the time commitment involved are contributing factors in hockey’s declining numbers, concern about head injury is eating away at hockey’s core: One survey, conducted by Charlton Strategic Research, noted that 70 per cent of parents with kids playing at the midget age group (15 to 17) were worried about injuries. Three in 10 parents said they have a player who had suffered a concussion. In Ontario alone, researchers now believe as many as 36,000 players suffer concussions yearly.
Hockey Canada has just tallied its registration numbers and discovered it is lighter by more than 5,600 players in the 2013-14 season. Though girls’ hockey has grown, the same can’t be said for boy’s hockey, which has been on the slide for three consecutive seasons.
Hockey executives are taking notice.
Don Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, gave the keynote address at a University of Toronto symposium focused on better understanding the effects of concussion on athletes.
Society as a whole, he said, allows and often applauds people for partaking in hyper-dangerous activities. “The question becomes what do we permit and under what regulations, and that’s what I think we’re now beginning to really re-examine,” he said. “What we are engaged in I think, is the beginning – at least in connection with a couple of sports – of a fairly thorough re-evaluation of how things are going to be done.”
The ultimate question, Fehr said, is who decides.
“Who gets to decide what activities that kid engages in and under what conditions? Some group, some organization, the government, or mom and dad? I don’t think there’s any clear answer and I think it changes with time, it changes with perception and it changes with circumstances.”
In Marshall, Tex., best known for its appearance in the legendary football movie Friday Night Lights, the school board decided in February to replace entry-level tackle football for Grade 7 students with flag football. That call drew interest around the continent.
“Canadians are as passionate about hockey as Americans are passionate about football,” says Dr. Paul Comper, a clinical neuropsychologist at Toronto’s University Health Network who also works as a consultant for the NHLPA.
And though Canadian boys dream of playing in the NHL, “at the lower level, the reality is these kids are not going to be professional hockey players,” Comper added. “They should not have to worry about head injuries. … We want kids to be active, but at what point does the needle move to where the risks outweigh the benefits?”
Hockey Canada insists safety is a top concern.
“When we talk to parents, we want to make sure they know that making the game safe is a top priority for us,” says Todd Jackson, a senior manager at Hockey Canada. “If we want to build up registration numbers, we’ve got to continue to work on safety.”
Last year, the game’s governing body implemented a controversial nationwide ban on bodychecking for players 13 and under to reduce the incidence of concussion. Later in June, the Greater Toronto Hockey League – the world’s biggest minor hockey league – will vote on taking that measure a step further: A motion before the board will, if approved, extend the no-bodychecking rule to all A-level players (not AA or AAA), regardless of age.