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player safety

Bob Nicholson, President and CEO of Hockey Canada says player safety remains the governing body’s main focus.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Of great concern to Hockey Canada is player safety. Since NHL star Sidney Crosby's year-long battle with concussion and the headlines given to new scientific evidence proving long-term damage from repeated blows to the head, the issue has moved to the front-burner in all hockey circles.

"A year and a half ago," says Bob Nicholson, president and CEO of Hockey Canada, "we stood up and wanted zero tolerance to hits to the head. We were the first hockey organization to do it. We did and we did a great job, but we have to stay on that and keep doing it and make it safer."

Hockey Canada also provides video presentation, web information and various apps on detecting and treating concussion, as well as the all-important concern of when to allow recovered players back in the game.

"We are still on a learning curve here," Nicholson says. "There's no question that safety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue."

"There are higher levels of aggression than there was in the past," says Paul Carson, vice-president of hockey development for Hockey Canada. "And that can be attributed to a lot of things. Right off the bat it's because the skill levels of the youngsters is better, better than it was 10-15 years ago, far better than it was 15-25 years ago. Kids are moving much quicker. They shoot the puck much harder. They are physically evolving faster because now you've got youngsters at 12 and 13 starting on training programs. There is also the equipment factor, where kids start to feel invincible, they start to feel the better the equipment is, the harder they can go, the more risks they can take."

Much of this is due to what Carson calls "unintended consequences." When eye and mouth injuries were a serious issue, Hockey Canada all but eliminated those concerns by bringing in masks. Masks, however, had the effect of raising sticks and more hits to the head. Similarly, as hockey protection materials evolved, the equipment became harder and lighter – shoulder and elbow pads as much weapon as protection. That needs to change.