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Minor hockey gets serious about safety Add to ...

Olyvia Greentree seems oddly calm about the series of concussions she has suffered over the past 10 years or so playing competitive hockey.

The hockey fanatic estimates she has endured six to eight of them playing the sport she obviously loves, beginning when she was just a nine-year-old playing hockey in her hometown of Curtis, Ont., about 80 kilometres east of Toronto.

The last occurred in May when she fell and struck her head on the ice and then off the goal post while playing for a club team at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Que., where she is a second-year education student.

At that point, a doctor finally advised her to find another sport.

"I was told to take up swimming," Greentree said.

As a result of the repeated trauma to her brain, Greentree suffers frequently from migraine headaches and one of her hands has a tremor.

"It's embarrassing," the 19-year-old admitted. "People ask me why are you shaking? As far as I know that's something I'll have for the rest of my life."

Hockey Canada, which oversees the game at the grassroots level in this country for about 550,000 registered players, is hoping that growing awareness of concussions in the sport will prevent stories such as Greentree's from occurring again.

"I've always said, and I've always been an advocate, that if the game's played properly and within the rules it's a safe game to play," Todd Jackson, senior manager of safety and insurance with Hockey Canada, said from Ottawa. "I think that's the thing that we really need to stress to everyone."

Jackson said Hockey Canada has no hard data on whether the incidents of concussions to amateur hockey players are on the rise.

But he suspects that is the case.

"I think one of the things you're going to hear from any medical professional you talk to as well as any grassroots sports administrator is we need continuing research," he said. "We need data to let us know how many of these things are happening and how they're happening. And that's going to help us in the long run to reduce them.

"Are concussions on the rise? They appear to be on the rise. Certainly the awareness is up and we recognize them a lot more."

Jackson said Hockey Canada has implemented several rule changes over the years to help reduce the chances of a player sustaining a concussion. Bodychecking an opponent to the head or from behind is now strictly outlawed.

He said Hockey Canada has also ramped up its education on concussions over the past 10 years, providing training for amateur hockey teams across the country on how to recognize the signs of a concussion and how to react.

The organization has also published a Return to Play protocol, which can be found on its website, that outlines the correct steps a hockey player should follow before returning to the game following a concussion.

Greentree wishes she had been aware of the policy when she suffered her first concussion.

Rather than take it slow and easy before returning to the sport as is advised, Greentree said she missed one game and was back at it.

"I was told last year no more contact sports," she said. "The doctors basically told me when I'm older I could lose my memory. The way they explained it to me, if I were to throw a kid up into the air I might forget to catch them."

Some parents of young hockey-playing youths are not willing to take such chances.

Alarmed after seeing his 12-year-old son, Phoenix, diagnosed with his third concussion in as many years as a result of playing competitive minor-league hockey in Toronto, Neil Clifford decided to take matters into his own hands.

He started his own competitive hockey league where body checking is strictly prohibited.

Although the TNCHL - the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League - is off to a modest start with just three teams of 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls, Clifford said he hopes to ice as many as 10 teams next year.

"Changing the nature and the various environments with hockey as it's played now is like moving a mountain," Clifford said. "And we recognize that there wasn't a lot of families who were very interested in our first set of tryouts for our first season.

"But I think they needed the proof that our league was actually up and running before they were willing to see about making the move from their current league."

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