The willful blindness in hockey at all levels toward concussions has diminished. Hockey Canada, the governing body for minor hockey, has followed the lead of USA Hockey in barring bodychecking below age 13, down from 11. What happened to hockey’s greatest star, Sidney Crosby, a year lost to a head injury in which the game’s (and his own) willful blindness almost certainly put him at severe risk, opened the eyes of hockey people everywhere. This country’s children have been facing similar risks at early ages, and Hockey Canada had to confront a powerful strain in the country’s psyche to make the rule change; the attachment to bodychecking from an early age is part of what makes Canadian hockey what it is.
The rule change should be taken as an opportunity to emphasize skill development in an atmosphere shorn of intimidation, and to curb the loss of thousands of young players who don’t enjoy that atmosphere, or whose parents don’t relish the thought of allowing their children’s growing brains to become scrambled.
Many Canadian hockey parents and coaches have argued for years that bodychecking at early ages is necessary to ensure that players can do it safely at older ages. True or not (Hockey Canada says it couldn’t find evidence for it), there may be a safer way to teach hitting than to make younger players pay the price for it in head injuries. When USA Hockey changed its rules for the 2011-12 season, it also created bodychecking-education programs that will be mandatory for all coaches, including those teaching players in the pre-checking ages. And it began to promote more “contact” – without actual bodychecking – from nine to 12. It also tightened the rules for 13 and up for “intimidation hits” – roughing, cross-checking, boarding, charging and high-sticking. The U.S. is trying to show that it’s possible to teach hockey survival skills without putting 11- and 12-year-olds at heightened risk. It’s worth the try.
It’s hard to change a sports culture so associated with who we are as a country. Two years ago, Hockey Canada took serious steps to eliminate contact to the head. But too many adults involved in minor hockey continued to stress the importance of intimidation. Too frequently, bodychecking has been used to try to separate a player from his head rather than from the puck. Children were paying a price for this country’s love of the game.
Change has been a constant in Canada’s game, and the change in the bodychecking age sends the clearest message yet to coaches and parents that player safety is paramount in the game.Report Typo/Error
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