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As brain injury researchers strike blow after blow against contact sport, parents are faced with difficult choices about what they will allow their children to play. (Taylor Callery For The Globe and Mail)

As brain injury researchers strike blow after blow against contact sport, parents are faced with difficult choices about what they will allow their children to play.

(Taylor Callery For The Globe and Mail)

Parents struggle to keep their heads in the game Add to ...

A survey of thousands of parents, players, team and club officials found that more than 64 per cent favour removing bodychecking in A-level hockey. (That percentage slipped to just over 57 per cent when respondents considered that these teams may not then be eligible to play in tournaments and championships involving other Ontario Hockey Federation leagues that still allow bodychecking.)

It’s a monumental shift in how kids play the game. With his association struggling to attract new players (despite population growth, registration has flat-lined), the GTHL’s executive director hopes this extended emphasis on safety will help.

“The game is changing now, but people saw [Chicago Blackhawk] Brent Seabrook’s hit on [St. Louis Blues] David Backes and think that’s what happens in the minor hockey,” Scott Oakman says. “We’re trying to make our game safer, but image issues take time to change.”

Even with heightened awareness, it is still difficult to determine the exact incidence of concussion. Parents have to fill out an injury report for a player who is hurt during team activities, a copy is kept by the league, and if a player has a concussion, he can’t return to the ice until cleared by a doctor.

It’s a well-intended system, but not foolproof.

“Concussions are, as you can imagine, tough to track as many occur at the local levels and do not necessarily get reported to us,” says Jackson of Hockey Canada. “This makes it difficult to get a true picture of the number occurring.”

Some teams are now conducting preseason baseline tests via questionnaires. The results are used as a comparison when a player suffers a head injury.

Hockey Canada approves of baseline testing, but does not make it mandatory. Paul Carson, the organization’s vice-president of development, notes the decision to test belongs to the individual minor hockey associations.

“If an association thinks that is a healthy choice for kids, then good for them,” Carson says. “I just don’t want it to be another expense when parents have said that [financial cost] is a concern for them.”

As for the GTHL, member clubs will vote on extending the bodychecking ban on June 14 – the GTHL board is recommending that if the rule change is accepted, it be deferred to the 2015-16 season. For parents tired of watching players helped off the ice after being hit in the head, that might not be good enough.

“Parents are tired of it,” says Robert Deutschmann, a father of three minor hockey players in Toronto. “I think it is commendable for the GTHL to be doing this, but we should go forward and do it this year.”

Soccer years behind hockey in understanding head injury

It’s fun, it’s inexpensive and it continues to grow in popularity. In 2013-2014 alone, 20,000 new players registered for soccer, pushing the total number in Canada to almost 866,000.

The way parents see it, soccer is a safe haven for their kids, a game without serious risk.

But scientists and doctors are picking a hole in that argument, specifically when it comes to heading the ball. Though the exact risk isn’t known, researchers suggest it may contribute to cognitive decline or impairment, with studies on long-term effects pointing to greater memory, planning and perceptual deficits. Increasingly, they’re calling for more comprehensive research on soccer players, and more awareness from kids, their parents and professional players as they re-examine the risk of the beautiful game.

“The goal is to come up with a far better understanding of concussions so it can turn into clinical practice,” said Dr. Paul van Donkelaar, director of the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

“I’d say soccer information is four to five years behind hockey.”

Toronto researchers raised red flags in February with a study that concluded that concussions accounted for 5.8 per cent to 8.6 per cent of the total number of injuries that occurred during soccer games.

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