The Ontario Hockey Federation, representing about one-third of Canada's roughly 600,000 registered players, is banning bodychecking from house-league levels beginning with the 2011-12 season.
The OHF had been considering the move for two years, said Phil McKee, OHF executive director. About 70 per cent of the 220,000 players in the OHF's seven member organizations play recreational hockey. The ruling includes the select or all-star level of house leagues, but does not affect the higher divisions known as competitive or "rep" hockey.
"It's the final step that has taken the evolution of a long process to an end result," McKee said.
The decision was greeted with nods of approval in some corners, but with elbows up in others.
Advocates of non-contact hockey embraced the move as a possible shift in traditional attitudes, with mounting evidence showing that bodychecking in youth hockey increases the likelihood of concussions and other injuries.
"It's a great day for kids in Ontario and I wish the OHF would embrace it at the [competitive]levels too, or at least give kids the option," said Bill Robertson, president of the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League, which started with three teams in 2009-10, jumped to eight in 2009-10 and expects to ice 13 teams in the coming season. "Our growth proves there's demand."
However, McKee said the notion of limiting or eliminating bodychecking from rep hockey "hasn't been discussed, and I don't see this as something that will percolate up into competitive hockey."
The OHF extended the ban to the select level, where all-star players are drawn from the house leagues to play a more competitive brand of hockey against similar teams from other organizations. The OHF wanted to provide an opportunity for players to have a higher level of hockey experience without bodychecking.
Peter Hoag has been coaching select hockey for 14 years, finishing this past season with a major midget team that his 17-year-old son Will played on. He says players preferred a clean but hard-hitting approach to the sport, and predicted that select players would seek it at other levels.
"It's not just the desire to play with better players, it's also the desire to play 'real' hockey, to feel what it's like to throw a hip check and have a guy cartwheel over you," said Hoag, who coached in the George Bell Hockey Association. "As an adolescent male, you want to do that. You're not hitting to hurt someone, but you want to do it. It's the same reason you play rugby or football."
The risk posed by bodychecking was one of several factors the OHF took into account. Another was a desire to standardize rules across the province at all age groups. The majority of house-league programs had already eliminated bodychecking, but problems emerged when teams from contact leagues met teams from non-contact leagues in tournaments.
Also considered was a view that a non-contact option for players would assist player recruitment and retention.
Among those affected by the decision, there was a range of opinion, not all positive. Some took issue with the timing. The decision was made known at the annual meeting of the OHF's minor council on April 29.
"It seems well intentioned but poorly executed," said Dave Samuels, who coached his son's York Mills minor bantam team in the North York Hockey League. "It caught a lot of people off guard and was done in a way where kids don't have the opportunity to react to it."
Most competitive teams have already been selected for 2011-12, leaving out those who want to continue playing contact hockey. Similarly, while larger centres in Southern Ontario may still be able to offer opportunities for contact hockey after the OHF's ban, in smaller centres, players who prefer bodychecking may have no choice if they can't qualify for the local competitive team.
Moreover, some players - or their parents - do not want to commit the time or resources to the more competitive rep stream, yet still seek the overall hockey experience that includes bodychecking. The OHF's ban may deprive them of that opportunity.
A good start, but not far enough was the reaction of advocates for safer hockey. They argue that bodychecking at any level - other than the most elite where players are on path to play in the junior ranks, collegiate or professional ranks - is an unnecessary health risk.
"There is no benefit to bodychecking at any level, but plenty of evidence showing bodychecking can result in more serious brain injuries," said Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto who led a study that found the introduction of bodychecking for atom players - 9-10 year-olds - by Hockey Canada in 1998-99 (since reversed) caused a 10-fold increase in injuries.
"Only one in 4,000 kids will ever make it to the big leagues," Cusimano said, "but we estimate some 15,000 to 20,000 kids and youth will suffer brain injuries in a hockey season. You have to think why you're sending your kid to play hockey - to have some fun? Be physically active? Learn about sportsmanship? Or do you want to create the next generation of Team Canada?"
With files from Tamara Baluja