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Andrea Winarski and her son, Aidan Fowler, 9, at the Markham Centennial Centre this month. ‘You should see some of the comments on my Facebook,’ she says of her petition to end body contact at all levels from bantam (age 14) on down. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Andrea Winarski and her son, Aidan Fowler, 9, at the Markham Centennial Centre this month. ‘You should see some of the comments on my Facebook,’ she says of her petition to end body contact at all levels from bantam (age 14) on down. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Our game

Proud hockey mom’s campaign to ban bodychecking in minor hockey Add to ...

Her biggest hurdle, she says, is getting past the religion of hockey.

The game, she says, is today far removed from the sentimental shinny games of so many memories. There is far too much nostalgia, she says, for something that no longer exists.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Andrea Winarski says.

She proudly calls herself a “hockey mom.” She believes she is part of a national movement of hockey moms – and, she claims, a great many of today’s hockey dads – to make a fundamental change to the national winter sport that many will counter would effectively destroy the game.

They want an end to bodychecking.

The businesswoman from Markham, Ont., and mother of three fanatical minor-hockey players, has launched a Facebook petition that is aimed at convincing Hockey Canada and the various provincial and city minor organizations to bring an end to such body contact at all levels from bantam hockey (age 14) on down.

Winarski is aware of the volatility of such a suggestion. “You should see some of the comments on my Facebook,” she says. “I’ve been called a p-u-s-s-y and a lot worse than that.”

But she isn’t backing down.

Her two boys, Liam, 10, and Aidan, 9, – a third child, Ava, 6, is in her third season of organized hockey – will soon be in peewee hockey, where bodychecking begins in most jurisdictions (Quebec raised the age to bantam level a few years back). There was so much talk, and apprehension, in the stands about what would happen when the boys were allowed to hit that Winarski decided to find out more about the topic.

“I honestly hadn’t paid too much attention to the whole thing,” she says, “but I thought I’d go online and find an article or two. I was absolutely blown away after 20 minutes – and flabbergasted that the pediatrics associations in Canada and America and the Mayo Clinic had all recommended that bodychecking be removed from peewee hockey as early as 2000, and absolutely nothing has been done.”

Since then, Winarski has become a bit of an expert on the medical warnings about hard body contact at such young ages. Most recently, a study in the current Canadian Medical Association Journal found that various rule changes aimed at making the game safer for youngsters not only reduced the number of penalties in a game but reduced injuries by three to 12 times the current rate.

Principal researcher Michael Cusimano says such serious injuries as concussions are often the result of aggressive bodychecking and account for 15 per cent of all injuries to hockey players ages 9 to 16. In a startling statement, the researchers said up to one-quarter of players suffer concussions in a single season.

In the Toronto doctor’s opinion, bodychecking should be banned from minor hockey for all age groups.

Emile Therien, past president of the Canada Safety Council, agrees. The injury factor in minor hockey has reached a point where, in Therien’s opinion, “it’s child abuse” not to act on it. Therien, who attended American college on a full hockey scholarship (and is the father of Chris Therien, who played 11 seasons in the NHL), says it was the medical profession that forced the hockey world to act on eye protection a generation ago.

“It was a crisis then,” he recalls. “We did nothing until the doctors led the movement to have players wear shields.”

The same thing will happen, Therien predicts, in the case of bodychecking and concussions unless hockey organizations take it upon themselves to act.

Bodychecking at the lower levels of the game is a question many organizations (most recently Calgary minor hockey) have mightily struggled with: If you take out body contact, is it still hockey? If you put it in late – in previous generations, there was no age set for the introduction of hitting – will players be able to learn the physical game?

Winarski argues today’s game is not yesterday’s game – and this important fact is usually absent from any discussion.

Those – mostly older males – who hold to the view that it is part of the game are remembering a game that is long gone, she says.

In past generations, she says, children would begin in organized hockey as late as 8 or 9; today they start at 4. They have superior training, much more ice time, play year-round and the game is far faster.

“The professional training from the professional leagues has filtered down to the kids,” she says. “It’s a different game.”

And, she adds, different equipment.

“They wear ‘Teflon’ shoulder pads,” she says. “When they hit, it’s not the same as hitting in 1970, with your leather or cloth pads.”

And finally, she says the game has changed in another, profound way: The scientific knowledge of concussions and their long-term impact on the brain. The younger the brain, scientists now say, the greater the danger.

For this reason, Winarski does not squarely blame Hockey Canada and its various organizations for inaction. “To be fair, the information is so new. It takes time to internalize it all and realize just what this is doing to the game.”

She believes those who quickly dismiss her arguments and believe bodychecking must be maintained have not been paying attention to what science has been telling the hockey world.

“I get a lot of very angry knee-jerk reaction,” Winarski says. “They haven’t read the research. It’s just ‘Don’t touch hockey! Don’t touch hockey!’”

There are, intriguingly, any number of life-long hockey people – older males, specifically – who believe there is merit to her point.

The vast majority of youngsters – as high as 99 per cent – will never have any “career” in the game. Once they leave organized hockey for recreational hockey, bodychecking is banned anyway.

Children, they argue, would have more fun if they did not have to worry about getting hit hard and might stay longer in the game, instead of dropping off dramatically around bantam age. Enrolment in minor hockey would rise.

As for those who might go on in the game, the Swedes – Peter Forsberg, Borje Salming, Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin, Mats Naslund, Nicklas Lidstrom, to mention only a few – came up through hockey with no bodychecking until much later, and can hardly be described as wilting flowers when it comes to contact.

There are, of course, arguments in the opposite direction.

Ask most kids how they feel and they will say they like the hitting, often even if they have themselves been injured. Nothing in the game – no coach, no video – can teach a player to “keep your head up” better than the threat of being knocked off your skates. It is also how the game has always been played: a tough, physical, skilled game in which Canadians have taken their greatest pride.

“It’s not an issue of bodychecking being in or out of hockey,” Winarski says. “We just constantly hear from a minority of people who are uninformed and nostalgic about the way hockey was. There is a very serious silent majority out there that needs a voice.

“I get hockey. I know people think it’s sacred. But the game has changed. It’s a different game today. This is an issue of stewards of minors providing an unsafe playing environment.

“I mean, we know better.”

In Our Game, a season-long series, Roy MacGregor examines hockey, from house league to the NHL.

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