USA Hockey is considering a proposal that would make bodychecking illegal for all players under 13, an initiative sure to ignite the growing debate over the proper time to introduce contact at the grassroots level.
The proposed measure was raised at USA Hockey's annual winter meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., and according to the association's senior director of hockey development, Kevin McLaughlin, it was not designed primarily to address safety issues.
"It is a skill development initiative first," said McLaughlin, who explained that his organization's research found that bodychecking at the peewee level was significantly distracting players from improving their skills at a critical time in their development. Too often, he said, players of that age were either too focused on hitting or trying to avoid a hit.
"We have to capitalize on what is known as the optimal window of skill acquisition - the age that a kid can maximize his genetic potential, whatever that might be. In hockey, skill acquisition - that optimum trainability - is through 12 years old. So we had to ask ourselves, for two years, are we creating an environment where the focus is on hitting and not on making plays?"
The USA Hockey proposals, which also seek to penalize all contact to the head and neck area, will be voted on at the organization's annual congress in June.
According to McLaughlin, a series of research studies into head injuries that culminated with a concussion summit at the Mayo Clinic last fall also reinforced the need for the initiatives. McLaughlin cited a seminal report conducted by University of Calgary researcher Carolyn Emery and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association as pivotal as well.
Emery's report followed more than 2,000 peewee players - half from Alberta leagues, where bodychecking was permitted, and the rest from Quebec, where it wasn't. The results show a significant difference in the number of head injuries, with 73 concussions among Alberta players over the 2007-2008 season, compared to 20 in Quebec. There were 14 severe concussions in Alberta, versus four in Quebec.
"What we find is that an 11-year-old brain is more susceptible to concussion," McLaughlin said. "The 11- and 12-year-old brain is not cognitively developed to anticipate being hit. So if you can't anticipate it and you can't protect yourself, you're putting yourself in a predicament to suffer a more severe injury."
Not all hockey associations in Canada are in lockstep with the USA Hockey proposal, including the Ontario Hockey League, whose executive director Phillip McKee said Tuesday: "It's not on our radar to raise the age."
"There's a lot of research out there on when bodychecking is best introduced," McKee said. "Some would argue it is important to introduce it at a younger age where there isn't as much testosterone involved, where there's less discrepancy in the size of the individual players."
It is also a matter of some debate in Quebec, the province with the toughest restrictions on bodychecking, where the venerable Quebec peewee tournament has amended its rule to include a division where bodychecking is permitted.
Quebec is the only province in Canada where bodychecking is banned at the pee-wee level - and there is pressure from within to soften that stance, according to Patrick Dom, general manager of the Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee de Québec, the world's largest hockey tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds.
"I'm certainly in favour of [checking] otherwise we would never have pushed to include it in the tournament," Dom said in a telephone interview.
This year's edition of the tournament that has featured Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and others kicks off next week. It will feature 2,200 players on 114 teams from 15 countries, with a new wrinkle: an elite AA division where checking will be permitted. But to Dom's discomfiture, no Quebec teams will be allowed to enter that division, which was created in part because local teams were having trouble competing against squads from other places who are accustomed to a rougher brand of hockey.
"There's bodychecking in pee-wee all over the world - except in Quebec," Dom said. "It's not like our kids can't do it."
If the USA Hockey plan to raise the minimum age of bodychecking by two years succeeds, McLaughlin said peewee teams will be still encouraged to learn the art of hitting during practices - and described it as the hockey equivalent of a two-year drivers' education program. The hope is that when players reach the bantam age, they will be familiar enough by practising bodychecking that the transition will be relatively smooth and seamless.
"We're not taking all contact out," McLaughlin said. "We want to get away from the intimidating hit, the idea of de-cleating the kid like they do in football. If you watch NHL Classics, it's kind of what old classic NHL games used to be - not the Broad Street Bullies era, but the old days when guys wore cotton shoulder pads and soft elbow pads and no helmets. That was good enough for pros back then."
According to USA Hockey president Ron DeGregorio, the proposed bodychecking modifications appear to have "significant support" within his organization.
"In the end, we need to do what is best for the kids who play the game," DeGregorio said.
With reports from Sean Gordon in Montreal and Robert MacLeod in Toronto.