“They’re watching,” she says, “and it’s all because of Sidney Crosby.”
She calls herself a “hockey mom” – but Edite Ozols is much more than that. She is watching her son, Markus, and all his 10-year-old teammates on the AAA Mississauga Rebels. This is a level where, if what we usually read and hear is true, the coaches are control-freak tyrants, the parents are insanely and pathetically ambitious and the kids play so much that by the time the postseason arrives they are as burnt out as Victoria Day fireworks.
But this is not what she is seeing. She is watching something else – something to do with hero worship among 10-year-olds for the player who scored Canada’s golden goal exactly one year ago, Sidney Crosby, the greatest player in the game today yet is not, sadly, actually in the game today because of concussion symptoms.
“Maybe our situation is a bit atypical,” Ozols says of her and her family’s minor-hockey experience, “but Markus plays on a wonderful team, he has wonderful coaches and the parents are wonderful.
“Hockey has been a joyous experience for us.”
Why, then, the hesitation? What has she seen that so obviously troubles her?
Edite Ozols is also a trained psychologist. Her university research was in neuropsychology. Before she went to work in the school system, she worked directly with patients who had suffered head trauma, often severe, and usually in motor-vehicle accidents.
She has noticed something of late. Her son and his teammates had been looking forward, keenly, to the introduction of body-checking next year. Anyone who has ever coached at the minor-league levels knows of this phenomenon: the almost visceral excitement that comes over a team about to move into more competitive, more NHL-style hockey. It is also the time when so many youngsters, especially those down the growth curve, decide to bail on the game when, in a seeming instant, it jumps from no contact to full body contact.
Crosby, she says, is a living god to these youngsters, whether they play in Mississauga or Moncton or Maple Ridge. “These are all boys who live and dream hockey 24 hours a day, and he is their hero.
“They all were looking forward to checking next year. They wanted it. But now they’re all afraid of hits to the head. And it’s all because of Sidney Crosby.”
The kids talk about the two hits to the head that have put Crosby out of action since Jan. 5, one a glancing blow during the New Year’s Day Winter Classic when Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins played the Washington Capitals, the second a more direct hit when the Penguins met the Tampa Bay Lightning four days later. The hits had nothing to do with fighting. The hits appeared to have nothing to do with deliberate headhunting.
No hit-to-the-head penalties were called. The hits, in other words, were hits that could happen to anyone – an NHL superstar, an 11-year-old kid in his first year of full-contact hockey.
One of the kids on the Rebels team has even written an essay on hockey hits to the head – the teacher allowed him to pick his own topic – and discovered that the International Ice Hockey Federation, unlike the NHL, penalizes any hit to the head or neck area. (“There is no such thing as a clean hit to the head in IIHF hockey,” federation president Rene Fasel says. “The rule really is a no-brainer.”) The kids have talked about this. Makes sense to them. They will play in leagues from now on with stricter rules on head hits than the NHL has, but all, it goes without saying, dream of one day playing at the NHL level.
Research on concussions is in its infancy, little understood. However, Dr. Charles Tator, a leading Toronto neurosurgeon who has emerged as the Canadian expert on hockey concussion, told a safety seminar held in Ottawa last week that evidence suggests young brains are more susceptible to injury. There is also a cumulative effect to concussions, suggesting each successive one displays worsening symptoms. If you have a first head injury at 11 or 12, a second or third later on can soon put an end to the dreams one had at 10.
Youngsters dropping out of hockey has long been a concern in the game, but it appears that fear of concussion has heightened matters. At the Ottawa gathering hosted by Reebok-CCM Hockey and the University of Ottawa’s Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory, Reebok-CCM vice-president Len Rhodes said that there are some 1.6-million players registered in the game – roughly 500,000 each in Canada, the United States and the rest of the hockey world – and growth has flat-lined. Rhodes makes no bones about why his company is getting involved in increased safety research – “Yes, there is something in it for us” – as fear-factor and ugly headlines are having an impact on involvement. The many positives of the game – team values, exercise, simple fun – are being overwhelmed by the negatives, concussion leading the charge.
“I have seen the effects of head injury,” Edite Ozols says. “Concussions are a horrible thing. It’s nothing like a broken bone that you can repair. It’s a hidden injury. You don’t just lose your memory, you lose your essence as a person.”
She would like to see Hockey Canada consider raising the age of full body contact, something that many others – such as past Canada Safety Council president Emile Therien – have been advocating. Quebec delays full contact another two years, but she would like it raised to a level where the youngsters have largely completed their growth spurts. She knows it’s an unrealistic wish, but that doesn’t make it an insincere wish.
“I want Markus to have hockey for his teenage years,” she says. “It’s a good place to be. He’s healthy, active, surrounded by good people and good friends and away from the streets and drugs.
“But we just don’t know all that much about concussions. We don’t know how many hits to the head a body can take. It’s a field that is changing so rapidly we can’t even imagine what we’ll know down the road. There needs to be a culture change. It has to be with the coaches and officials as well as with the players and the parents. We need to protect these youngsters.
“I always said, ‘As soon as my son gets even one concussion, that’s it.’ But I now think that’s the wrong approach.
“We need to prevent that first concussion.”