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Prime Minister Stephen Harper . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

Government set to weigh in on head shots Add to ...

The Harper government is preparing new measures to raise awareness of the growing number of head injuries in amateur sport, including hockey.

A federal source said the intention would be to reduce the prevalence of injury by better educating Canadians of the risks. The initiative will be announced in the near future.

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"It's not an existing program. It's a new one," a federal source said Friday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had strong words for the NHL this week in the wake of the horrific hit on Montreal Canadiens left winger Max Pacioretty, but made it clear Ottawa feels it's up to the NHL to police itself.

At the same time, Harper signalled his interest in intervening to make a difference in amateur sport, saying Thursday he's concerned about the "growing number of serious head and other injuries in kids' sports," and calling it "something we're particularly seized with taking action on and working with our provincial partners on."

Hockey Canada was not mentioned directly by Harper, but his remarks appeared to be a shot across the bow of the organization.

On Friday, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson outlined some of what his organization has been doing as the concussion issue continues to mushroom. He said it has been gathering information and preparing for an annual general meeting where the game's national governing body is likely to redefine its rules pertaining to blows to the head.

"There are certainly documents we've been talking to the federal government about on kid's sports," said Nicholson, who has conversed with officials from speed skating and soccer as well. "[The feds]work with the provinces and territories and I think there have been discussions with the federal Sports Minister. I've talked with Gary Lunn a few times on concussions … I update the things we're doing."

Hockey Canada has held conferences on player safety and has also had representatives attend similar symposiums in the United States. With so much information on head trauma and their long-term effects flooding the sports world, the need to collect and disseminate has become paramount.

"We will be discussing more at our AGM here in May. We'll be looking at a new interpretation of hits to the head," Nicholson said. "We're trying to gather all the new findings. … Look at Bob Probert's situation. [The 45-year-old former NHL player was recently diagnosed with brain damage at the time of his death.]We didn't recognize that in the past. Now it's about, how do we get it under control?"

Nicholson said curbing the rising number of head injuries involves a close examination of hockey and what has happened over recent years.

"We've done so many good things to our game [to free it up, make it faster] Some argue that concussions are an outcome of that. Is that what's causing it? We really don't have the statistics for that," he said.

"Officially, for us, we're concerned within hockey. Our whole game is: It isn't just hits to the head, it's game management and respect, how parents react, the yelling at the refs. It's the whole climate we're trying to get at."

Rob Litwinski, the general manager of Hockey Alberta, has been doing his part, stockpiling injury information from the 65,000 minor hockey players in the province. What he's found hasn't followed conventional thought.

"The talk in rinks, even in women's hockey games where there is no body checking, is that concussions are happening at all levels of our game. Why is that?" Litwinski said. "If we think there's a magic bullet, we're mistaken. We need to look at everything. This is an issue in our game; we have to acknowledge it and what are the potential courses of action."

Lunn said this week he thinks Ottawa has a role to play in protecting young athletes.

"We're going to bring together different organizations, different experts in the field and raise the level of awareness," he said. "Will there be accidents in sport? Yeah, there's still going to be. … But if we can help facilitate working with amateur sports, national sport organizations to reduce the risk, reduce injury … that's what we're looking at doing."

Lunn told The Globe and Mail this week there have been discussions around the cabinet table about pro hockey injuries - and the broader issue of children's injuries in sport - for the past year. He is working with Health Canada on prevention awareness programs for children in all sports.

With files from Jane Taber

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