As far as theatre goes, it certainly had its moments.
There was raw emotion – including genuine tears – and some real anger and even a bit of welcome humour, considering the chosen topic.
More than 100 concerned coaches, players, parents and grandparents gathered at The Venue last week in downtown Peterborough to discuss a subject that the hockey world may have grown weary of but still needs to address: concussion.
Peterborough may well be the country’s most-active community when it comes to contact team sports – a town obsessed with hockey and lacrosse – and it is most assuredly the national leader when it comes to doing something about the head-injuries that are of growing concern in all contact games.
Peterborough’s Youth Sports Concussion Program (www.yscp.ca) is an inspired web-based resource centre that is being offered freely to other communities across the country. In the Greater Peterborough area, the program will ultimately lead to base-line testing for some 15,000 students.
Thursday’s symposium was chaired by Hockey-Hall-of-Famer Ken Dryden, who dreams of similar gatherings taking place right across the country. It included testimony – all of it compelling, much of it disturbing – from concussed players at both the professional and amateur levels. One, 18-year-old Laura Young, has had to take a year off from high school in order to deal with continuing symptoms from a third concussion suffered while playing hockey. Another, former professional hockey player Scott Wasson, told the gathering that he figures he had a dozen concussions in his career, four of them severe. Wasson talked about the effect his depression, anger and the medication that helped him deal with continuous headaches had on his family and said he was “worried” that his sports-loving children were going to suffer a similar fate.
“As a parent,” he said, “you don’t want your kid to go through what you went through.”
In Wasson’s opinion, it should be mandatory in all contact sports that parents be required to take a “respect” program such as the one offered by Hockey Canada to minor hockey associations across the country.
“They can understand a broken arm,” Wasson said. “They cannot understand a concussion.”
And from this point on, the talk turned to a consideration that rarely arises in any discussion of head injuries in hockey. Fingers get pointed at the National Hockey League, the Players’ Association, Don Cherry, television highlights and major junior hockey – but not at those parents who simply will not accept that change is necessary.
Walter DiClemente, president of the Peterborough Minor Hockey Council, talked about how some parents have intimidated young referees to the point where stronger rules being called earlier in the season were not being called later. He even described a situation during an early tournament where parents surrounded a referee’s car in the arena parking lot, angrily threatening him.
“It was pretty nuts,” DiClemente said. “Refs get tired of getting yelled at, so they’re not calling as much. I would understand if they never came back to referee another game.”
Sherry Bassin, who has spent his life in junior hockey and is currently the owner of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, says overbearing parents are even having an effect at the major junior level, where consideration is currently being given to ban fighting entirely.
Bassin’s team already bans fighting at its training camps, much to the discouragement of some parents who see fisticuffs as their child’s only chance at playing professional hockey: “They say to me, ‘Why did you draft my boy then?’”
Bassin says that even with rule changes and a de-emphasis on fighting, his Otters had seven concussed players this past season. “We have an issue here that has to be dealt with head on,” he said.
In another circumstance, the Otters had one repeatedly concussed player examined by three different neurologists, each of whom advised the player to stop playing. When the Otters decided to take the medical advice and no longer dress the player, his parents were furious.
“That’s how much change is needed,” said Bassin, who called on all hockey to address the concussion issue until it is no longer such a factor. “A diamond,” the blunt, straight-speaking team owner said, “is a lump of coal that stuck with it.”
“Whether we stick with it or not,” said Dryden, “it’s going to stick to us.
“If this game didn’t change, it would still have seven skaters, no substation, no forward pass – because that’s what hockey was for the first 50 years.
“This is an ongoing thing. This isn’t just bad luck. We have got a problem.”
“You have to educate the parents,” added DiClemente, “that the rules are changing for a reason.”