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Concussion prevention takes a hit from hockey leagues

Medical experts would ban hitting until 15 or 16.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Despite concerns about concussions and other injuries, two Canadian minor hockey associations have voted against extending body checking bans for players over 13 years of age.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), the largest of its kind in the world, recently voted on a motion calling for the removal of body checking at the "A" level starting in 2015-16. After the motion was amended to ban body checking effective immediately, it was defeated by a closed ballot, meaning there will still be body checking at the A level this coming season.

A day later, Newfoundland and Labrador hockey association held a vote to ban body checking in bantam and midget hockey – this proposal was also defeated.

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Some parents, coaches and medical experts took notice, and were not pleased.

"There are now too many concussions in youth hockey, and body checking is one of the more frequent mechanisms," said Dr. Charles Tator, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto. "It makes sense to me to delay body checking until age 16. The adolescent brain is especially vulnerable, and we need to protect it at that age."

In theory, banning body checking for minor hockey players ages 13 to 17 should be an easy exercise. It's about safety, and most everyone can appreciate that. And yet when to introduce body checking remains a hot-button issue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently determined there shouldn't be any body checking until boys are at least 15. Even then, it should be restricted "to the highest levels of competition."

Dr. Roger Zemek, a scientist and researcher at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, believes treating kids with a concussion is different than dealing with concussed adults.

"Think of the brain as a battery that's fully charged. After a concussion, it's half-charged," he said. "Kids are not resting and staying away from school, sports and screen time. They have to be told, 'You really need that rest.' We don't know the long-term danger of concussions. We're still in the infancy of concussion research."

In the GTHL, the decision to leave body checking at the A level – it's ranked below AA and AAA, where the top-end players compete – has sparked some angry reaction.

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Tim Short has taken his son out of the GTHL and placed him with a team at the select level, where there is no body checking. According to Short, coaches and parents had formed a coalition months ago to persuade the GTHL to ban A-level body checking for the 2014-15 season.

The GTHL also did a survey earlier this year that noted parents were very much in favour of removing body checking at the A level, citing injury risk as a reason.

"People say, 'You do this [ban body checking at the A level] and we can't play in tournaments,' or 'we need to keep the feeder system for AAA full,'" said Short. "It's incredible to think that a non-profit organization, the GTHL, voted against the clear majority wishes of the parents and coaches. Single-A kids are not going to the NHL."

Scott Oakman is the executive director of the GTHL and said tournament play, likely against other teams that do body check, played a part in the decision to keep body checking for the coming season.

"There are three issues," said Oakman, "our teams travelling to tournaments in other jurisdictions where body checking is permitted; whether our teams can participate in branch championships; and whether our teams can host tournaments that permit body checking. If they can't, will they be able to attract teams to participate in their tournaments?"

While Oakman said the mood at the GTHL annual meeting was "cordial," he acknowledged he's had a handful of parents call to say how disappointed they are with how the voting went down.

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"The GTHL board is still interested in pursuing the removal of body checking in 'A' hockey for the 2015-16 season, as the original motion was intended to do," said Oakman. "They will be working through the logistical issues over the next several months and hopefully will be in a position to present a new motion once that has been completed."

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