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The question: My son is 4, and I would love for him to enjoy hockey as much as I do. But is he too young to join a team? I worry about him getting hurt. How young is too young?

The answer: As I try to cope with my own NHL withdrawal symptoms, it is refreshing to hear that there is someone out there enthusiastic to play hockey!

The age at which children start to play organized sports depends a great deal on availability of coaching and programming in your particular community. In my experience, skating lessons can start as young as 2, remarkably putting children on skates not long after they have learned to walk. Organized hockey programs typically start around 5, but this can vary.

The importance of quality coaching cannot be overstated. At this early level, the emphasis should be placed on learning fundamental skills like skating, passing and stick-handling in a fun and safe environment. Your local hockey association should be able to comment on the training and certification level of the coaches in its program. Word of mouth can also be helpful. Try to find a family whose child participated in the program last year to get a sense of what's involved and whether they were happy with the experience.

Keeping kids safe on the ice starts with making sure they have all the proper equipment and – equally important – that the equipment fits well. Look to a sporting goods store with experience in fitting children's hockey gear or to your child's coach if you're not sure.

All this, of course, comes at a significant cost. Buying second hand equipment is one way of keeping costs down, but make sure that the gear you are buying has not been worn out or damaged by the previous owner, and never sacrifice proper fit. Families on a tight budget may find these costs a challenge. I like to remind parents about programs like KidSport and Jumpstart that offer funding to help defray the cost of children's sports.

Although enjoyable, the risk of injury with hockey is significant. Adequate on-ice supervision is critical both to enhance skill development and prevent injury. In older age groups, significant debate abounds about how old a child should be before being allowed to bodycheck. The Canadian Pediatric Society recently published guidelines that recommend delaying its introduction until players are at least 13. They also recommended eliminating it completely from non-competitive, recreational hockey. Bodychecking is not currently allowed in women's hockey.

Even without checking, unintentional contact can occur between players – and between players and the boards. I say this not to scare parents and kids away from playing hockey, but merely to emphasize the importance of quality protective equipment, qualified coaches and adequate supervision.

Above all, this is supposed to be fun! Although you may be ready to jump into the role of hockey parent, make sure that your child shares your enthusiasm. If not, be patient. In my experience, forcing a child into a sport or activity before they are physically or socially ready can lead to frustration for all involved.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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