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Zach Parise of the U.S. celebrates after scoring a goal against Canada to go into overtime in the last thirty seconds of the third period in their men's ice hockey gold medal game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 28, 2010. REUTERS/Scott Audette (SCOTT AUDETTE)
Zach Parise of the U.S. celebrates after scoring a goal against Canada to go into overtime in the last thirty seconds of the third period in their men's ice hockey gold medal game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 28, 2010. REUTERS/Scott Audette (SCOTT AUDETTE)

HOCKEY SUMMIT: PART 2

Nurturing the seeds of development Add to ...

His title, Pat Kelleher explains with a laugh, will take up half a paragraph to produce: Assistant executive director, membership development, USA Hockey.



It is a mouthful, and one that might be repeated a few times next week, given that Kelleher is a session leader for what figures to be the most ambitious and potentially contentious session during the world hockey summit.

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Officially, Kelleher's broad mandate is to oversee a discussion that touches on a long-term plan for player development, recruitment and retention; to provide better opportunities for a safe, positive, and enjoyable experience in youth hockey; and to foster long-term participation in the sport at all levels of play, from the grassroots to the highest end.



All that in a half day's worth of chat on a Tuesday morning.



Just as Canada is enjoying a remarkable renaissance by producing so much precocious talent, USA Hockey's program has never been stronger or deeper either. They have an elite-level development program based in Ann Arbor; they are the reigning world junior champions and were silver medalists at the 2010 Olympics. In June, 11 players developed in the U.S. system were chosen in the first round of the NHL entry draft.



But for a variety of reasons, USA Hockey loses up to 40 per cent of its participants before the age of nine, according to Kelleher, and believes that's one area where strides can still be taken.



"Long-term athlete development, or what we call LTAD, is the big push in sport now," Kelleher said. "Our sport is a late-development sport. Gymnasts, for example, or figure skaters, they're at the peak at age 14 or 15. That's when they're Olympians. For us, there are plenty of players who, if they keep going and play junior or college, they are best served at 22 to be at that elite level.



"Our model is designed to make kids as good as they can be - whether that means they end up as a beer-league player on a Thursday night, or playing in front of 20,000 people 80 games a year. As long as they get the chance, we don't drive them or their families away."



Part of keeping players in the game for an extended period is ensuring that conditions are as safe as they possibly can be - at every level, from minor hockey to the NHL. Recent concussion studies done in both the NFL and the NHL show that head trauma is a growing concern, at every level of football and hockey.



New York Rangers' Brendan Shanahan (14) gets attended to on the bench by trainers after getting hit in the face with the puck during the third period of this NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007, in Raleigh, N.C. Rangers won, 4-1. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's vice-president of hockey and business development, retired from the game last year and now has a seven-year-old son playing.



"I'm definitely concerned about youth hockey and concussions being properly diagnosed at that level," Shanahan said. "Hockey can be a dangerous game, and when you play, you accept some of those risks.



"At the NHL level, we're so well taken care of by our teams, our doctors and our trainers. We have the ability to fine and suspend players in the NHL that are deliberately trying to hurt each other. I'm a little more concerned with the grassroots. I don't know that all those safeguards are there in youth hockey, where some kids are young men playing against kids who are still boys. The difference between two 15-year-old boys the exact same age can be huge."



Toronto neurosurgeon Michael Cusimano was one of the early whistle-blowers about the dangers of body checking for young hockey players. Cusimano was once shunned from hockey circles for his beliefs.



"I was the black sheep," said the soft-spoken physician and researcher from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.



Seven years ago, Dr. Cusimano urged a ban on body checking for players under 18 years old, citing alarming figures showing two in three serious injuries suffered by young hockey players result from such hits. His essay, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, unleashed a torrent of angry responses from parents and coaches. He said even some of his medical peers distanced themselves from his position.



Now, as head injuries in youth hockey become a hot-button issue at conferences such as the world hockey summit, Cusimano's lonely rallying cry has become a chorus.



Momentum is building in other areas. Hockey Canada is considering banning body checking in all regions under the age of 13. Scientists are piling on solid evidence about the long-term effects of concussions, including a groundbreaking study released earlier this year, showing four-fold increase in concussions among youth leagues that allow hitting. Preventative equipment, such as mouth guards, have become commonplace, and concussion protocols have been developed. Some non-contact leagues are sprouting up across the country.



Cusimano's latest research is looking at the correlation between violence and head trauma in several key groups, including hockey players. His main interest is understanding the cultural roots of violence in the sport, and how those attitudes can be changed.



"Hockey presents a microcosm of society where we have brain injury and violence, and it's accepted. What we're doing is basically saying it's okay to inflict brain injuries on people," he said.



"It started as a stage of denial. And now it's becoming a stage of awareness. And the next stage will be something where we get things done."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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