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the game changer

Ryan Beetsra #15 of Richmond Seafair A2 is checked into the boards by Eli Saul #16 of Vancouver Thunderbirds Atom A2 as they battle for the puck during their game in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada September 29, 2011.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Former Calgary Flames captain Jim Peplinski, known best for his skills as a bruiser on the ice, is calling for a nationwide ban on bodychecking until at least the age of 16 to curb the concussion rates plaguing hockey.

The Stanley Cup winner, who played in 711 career NHL games, scoring 161 goals while picking up 1,467 minutes in penalties, said prohibiting hitting among youngsters could have the added benefit of helping turn around the trend of declining enrolment in minor hockey.

Otherwise, Peplinski said during a sport concussions seminar at the University of Calgary this week, he's not optimistic about the future of Canada's national passion.

"On this path, I think we're going to become dinosaurs," he said.

As hockey is currently structured, hitting can begin among children as young as 11, when bodies and brains are still growing, and size differences among players are pronounced.

A five-year University of Calgary study showed Alberta peewee players – aged 11 and 12 – were at three times the risk of being injured, and four times the risk of suffering a concussion, than peewees in Quebec, where a ban on hitting is in place. Research also shows that concussion symptoms usually resolve in seven to 10 days in 80 per cent of cases, but for some patients, the ill effects can last for weeks, months, even years.

Peplinski wants Hockey Canada, the national governing body for all levels of the sport except the professional leagues, to outlaw hitting across the country until players are between 16 and 18.

"I'd question whether I'd have kids in hockey as it's currently organized," said Peplinski, whose two sons gave up the sport at the midget level. "I don't think I would.

"The image, the money, it completely fogs people's judgments," he said, referring to parents and kids with their sights set on the NHL, or at least emulating it.

Mark Howell, coach of the University of Calgary men's hockey team, agreed with Peplinski. Howell suggested hitting should be banned until players are perhaps 13 to 15, when they are bigger and can better conceptualize the game. He said youngsters cannot control their bodies or the puck like the pros, while their awareness of time and space also falls short of that of adults.

"Kids cannot learn to hit," Howell said. "Kids need to learn the game of hockey without the fear of body contact at a young age."

Hockey Canada counted 624,148 registered players in 2012-13, about 100,000 more than a decade earlier. But the uptick is in adults, while the traditional minor levels are taking a hit. More than 8,000 kids dropped out of the sport this season compared to the year before.

Howell said parents are keeping their kids out of minor hockey because they worry about the danger. Hockey has become a fast, tough game, he said, where players are egged on in an "alarming" way by spectators.

"The biggest thing we have to change is the culture," Howell added.

Both Howell and Peplinski want Hockey Canada to ban hitting nationwide.

"Hockey Canada can mandate that," said Paul Carson, vice-president of hockey development with Hockey Canada, and a participant in the seminar. However, it's up to the volunteer board of directors to make the decision, he added.

He pledged to share the information from the seminar, which was attended by hundreds of athletes, doctors, coaches and parents, with his members.

But Carson said other initiatives should also be undertaken, such as more practice time and skills development. "We've got to make the game safer by doing more than taking bodychecking away," he said.

Bodychecking has been a hot button issue blazing through minor hockey nationally.

Last year, after months of pitched debate, Hockey Calgary voted against a proposal to ban it at the peewee level. Much of the concern focused on whether Calgary players would be outmatched when they played teams from other leagues that allow hitting.

At the same time, B.C.'s Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association voted in favour of banning hitting in its house-league games, but it will still be allowed in more advanced levels.

Rob Litwinski, executive director of Hockey Alberta, said a bodychecking review committee is set to issue a report this spring about whether to enact an overall ban on hitting among peewees.

The seminar, hosted by Ken Dryden, a Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender, called the concussion issue: "The most significant sports question facing the future."

Peplinski, who was co-captain of the Flames along with Lanny McDonald when Calgary won the Stanley Cup in 1989, and still works for the organization, shakes his head when he thinks about the politics involved in getting something that, at least to him, should so obviously be banned.

"It's a frigging quagmire," he said.

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