He is 5 and, at the moment, is trying to jump down five stairway steps in a single bound.
But he is also a brand-new click in the calculator that measures hockey registration in the one country in the world that still believes – even despite the growing non-believers – that the real Holy Trinity is puck, stick and skates.
What’s it like? he is asked after his first weekend of organized hockey.
“FFFFUUUNNNNN!” he screeches as he launches himself into the air, safely landing on the bottom of the stairs.
He comes from, now, a long line of players. His father still plays. His mother played. His grandfather plays Mondays with his uncle. In a book of black-and-white photographs, there is a wonderful picture of the great-grandfather he never met, a fit young man staring out defiantly with his 1927-28 senior hockey teammates, the part in his hair as straight and measured as the line across centre ice.
If he asked, his grandfather would tell him of the good that can come from signing up. Friends for life. A sense of teamwork and responsibility. Learning early how to handle defeat as well as victory. Exercise, fitness and “FFFFUUUNNNNN!”
But he would also have to be honest and talk about the flip side of that shining coin: the madness that causes parents to spend small fortunes sending their youngsters to “hockey academies;” the absurdity of spring, let alone summer, hockey; the tournament world that too often becomes the social life of the parents; the byzantine politics of too many minor-hockey organizations; the much less than 1-per-cent chance any child signing up new this fall has of one day turning this child’s play into a life.
And, of course, the dangers, the most severe of which we did not know, or did not understand, when mother, father, uncle, grandfather and, most assuredly, great-grandfather laced up and stepped out onto that still-romanticized “clean sheet of ice.”
This trifecta of concern – danger, cost, time – is what causes the leaping five-year-old to become, at 13, 14 or 15, the child who steps aside, who walks away from a game they might return to in their late 20s – at which point, for reasons easily understood by those who do return, the game suddenly becomes “FFFFUUUNNNNN!” again.
Costs are reasonable; time is minor; danger is mitigated.
Years and years ago, former NHLer and television analyst Howie Meeker was warning hockey that if it failed to keep “fun” in the game, teenagers would leave it. Skill, he argued, is what makes fun. “And you absolutely cannot learn a skill in a violent atmosphere.”
They did not listen. Instead, they barked back – and still bark back – that it’s “a man’s game.” Suck it up and go away if you can’t deal with that.
No one says it isn’t a tough and physical game and should remain so at the most competitive levels. But we know today that having one’s “bell rung” is not cartoon stars and birds chirping. Concussion – a stigmatic word professional hockey is increasingly refusing to use – is such a serious issue that, recently, the NFL agreed to a $765-million settlement with 4,500 former players suing it over the consequences. That the settlement seems so shockingly low when you consider the damage speaks more to the desperation of those in dire need of help than it does to reason or fairness.
Many Canadians, many of them mothers with children in the game, have lobbied hard for raising the age of checking in the game. While some do listen – Hockey Canada itself raised the age of bodychecking to 13 this year – some others respond to these mother-driven campaigns with crude, misogynist, obscene vitriol that is anonymous social media’s equivalent of “it’s a man’s game.”
There have been multiple valuable conferences held concerning the science of sports head injuries.
Charles Tator of Toronto Western Hospital and ThinkFirst Canada has become the international expert in concussion research. On Saturday in Toronto, at the Heads Up conference, St. Michael’s Hospital neurosurgeon Michael Cusimano will show an early trailer of a documentary, Sending Madness, which details the incredible emotional struggles of athletes – as well as their families and coaches – following a brain injury. Former NHL star Eric Lindros, who lost his career to concussion, and four-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, a strong advocate of more safety in sport, are featured in the project.
The science is now far from disputable even if it can be fairly said, even by the scientists, that we know so very little about the long-term effect of such brain injuries. But we do know, irrefutably, there is long-term effect.
The time is now at hand to move into the next phase. It is time for action. The recent gathering in Banff by Hockey Alberta got into the area of how to make the game better but it is going to take serious commitment from all levels – five-year-olds to the NHL – to affect real change for the better.
Murray Costello, the former NHLer who was head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and Hockey Canada for so many years, believes much of the needed change could happen instantly if the will were there.
“They could fix it overnight if they wanted to,” Costello says. “Just ban all hits to the head. Hockey is a ‘bodychecking’ game, not a ‘head-checking’ game.”
Fix the rules, direct the officials to act on them, send out “a clear and unambiguous message” such hits will no longer be tolerated, have serious reinforcement in place in terms of penalties, suspensions and fines commensurate with the offence – and a great many young players who leave may decide, instead, to stay.
And stay because it is still “FFFFUUUNNNNN!”