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Concussion, safety issues dominate proceedings

This is how it should go at an event like the World Hockey Summit: Somebody unexpectedly emerges as the star of the show, with an interesting story to tell and a practical solution to one of the primary issues facing the game - in this case, the prevalence of concussions and what to do about them, particularly at the youngest ages.

On Tuesday, that somebody was Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, one of seven panelists involved in the morning discussion. Laviolette had about five minutes to make a point about player development - the nominal starting point of the three-day gab fest - and made the most of his time in front of the microphone.

Noting that last year, between NHL gigs, Laviolette had a chance to coach his peewee-age sons in Florida, which is not exactly a hotbed of player development. But even at that age, and in that relatively small minor-hockey league pocket, Laviolette found the kids far too aggressive, launching themselves against each other like missiles.

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If you take two kids going 25 [miles an hour]and you slam them into one another, there's a good chance somebody's going to break a bone or get a concussion. Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette

What, he suggested, was the point of that? It made no sense and it made even less sense because one son, Peter, has already suffered a concussion playing hockey.

It was Laviolette's contention that bodychecking is being introduced at far too young an age in most jurisdictions. And, at that juncture, isn't taught properly by the volunteers that mostly make up the minor-hockey coaching fraternity.

He wants video available, either via DVD or online download, to instruct all of the principles - coaches, players and presumably parents, too - about what is and isn't permitted.

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"The best way to teach at any level, whether it's kids or the NHL level, is by watching something," Laviolette said. "When the NHL wants to discuss hits to the head and how to prevent them and what's legal and what's not legal, all NHL teams have to watch a video and sign off on the fact that they did watch it.

"The same should [apply]to the coach that's coaching my children - that something should be put in place for the kids to watch what is legal and what's not legal and the repercussions of hits that do harm to children."

Officially, safety issues were only one part of the morning session, but they dominated the forum.

Laviolette thought postponing bodychecking until the age of 13 or so made a lot of sense. It was a point reiterated by Dr. Mark Aubry, who suggested there was convincing evidence to something that seemed self-evident anyway - a direct link between the introduction of bodychecking and an increase in concussions.

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Panel moderator Bob McKenzie, a TSN analyst who has two sons playing the game, one of whom has had to deal with postconcussion syndrome, told a story about a colleague that has two children, one boy, one girl, both under the age of 10 (before body contact is allowed) and both suffered concussions last season.

McKenzie's question: Is the game too fast? And if it is, how do you slow it down, so that it doesn't go back to the bad old days of hooking, holding, clogging up the neutral zone, but has the intended effect of keeping a player's noggin safe from harm?

To Laviolette, the increasing speed of the NHL game has filtered down to minor hockey, what with better skates and more attention paid to off-ice training.

"There are no holdups," he said, "and there is no defensive interference. Kids take legitimate runs at each other - and if you take two kids going 25 [miles an hour]and you slam them into one another, there's a good chance somebody's going to break a bone or get a concussion.

"My son is 12 years old. He's a first-year bantam. He's still a young boy. I do get concerned for my kids' safety. It's a great sport, but it's a fast sport and sometimes, you can really push the limits out there."

Aubry talked about how years ago, the focus in the hockey world was on reducing spinal-cord injuries - and that has been accomplished, as more players were taught to pull up in the corner and not hit from behind.

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The same emphasis must now be placed on trying to get concussions under control.

In his practice, Aubry said he doesn't see any more concussions in young hockey players - or before bodychecking is introduced - than he does in any other sports.

"It's a safe game at the initiation level up to peewee," he said. "I would see just as many [injured]soccer kids as hockey kids.

"Where we start to see more injuries is in the peewee leagues, where now we have bodychecking. It's a vulnerable time. Kids are reaching puberty. The weight and height differences are huge. The skeletal maturity for one is complete; for the other one, it's not even begun.

"We're exposing these kids to an increased risk of injury at an age where we should still be talking about skill development; and having fun," Aubry said.

"That's where, hopefully, things may change in the future."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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