After months of discord and discussion, anger and arguments, an attempt by Hockey Calgary to ban bodychecking at the peewee level was put to a vote Saturday. The results were quick and decisive.
The majority of Calgary's 24 hockey associations voted against the ban, and also against removing bodychecking in midget and bantam below the elite level. Some in attendance were thrilled, others disappointed. It was all so symbolic of a debate now spreading from coast to coast.
When to introduce hitting, and at what level, is Canadian minor hockey's fire-starter issue. It inflames opinions, heightens tension. It takes parents, coaches and officials who want the same thing – to best protect their children on the ice – and turns them against one another.
Hockey Calgary was looking to follow Quebec's lead and outlaw hitting among 11- and 12-year-old players, the age group where the differences in the sizes of players become very noticeable. A five-year-old study conducted by Carolyn Emery of the University of Calgary showed Alberta players were at three times the risk of being injured and four times the risk for concussions specifically, compared to Quebec peewees.
On the same weekend Hockey Calgary made its decision, B.C.'s Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association voted 76 per cent in favour of banning hitting in its house-league games. (Bodychecking will still be allowed by the more advanced players in rep, or competitive, leagues.) The Pacific Coast Association oversees Vancouver-area minor hockey players and cited Dr. Emery's injury statistics as the reason for voting against bodychecking.
In Ontario, bodychecking is allowed in rep play when players represent their associations. It's not allowed in house-league games, and other associations in the province are discussing when hitting should be introduced in competition.
Hockey Calgary president Todd Millar had supported the removal of hitting in peewee and, despite Saturday's vote, believes the goal remains the same.
"The board needs to stay focused on the safety component of the game," he said. "We've been talking about this [intensely] for years and it has caught on across Canada. I like to think we're just getting started."
The concern in Calgary, home to 13,500 registered minor-hockey players, was what would happen to the non-body-checking peewees if they competed against teams outside Calgary that allowed it. By banning hitting, Hockey Calgary would have had different rules than teams from Edmonton and other centres throughout the province. That didn't sit well with those who felt bodychecking should be handled by Hockey Alberta, with Hockey Canada input, so rules would be standardized for tournaments and provincial playoffs.
"If this [bodychecking ban] had gone through, I was considering moving outside of Calgary," said a father of a peewee-age boy. "And I wasn't the only one thinking that."
Dave Makarchuk, chairman of the Trails West Hockey Association in Calgary, said his association voted in favour of the ban, hoping it would reduce injuries and keep kids in the game longer. "It's not just a safety discussion; it's a player development discussion," said Mr. Makarchuk, who pointed out registration and retention numbers would increase if kids could play without fear of being hit and hurt.
Hockey Calgary was asked in 2011 to investigate bodychecking and commissioned a panel that looked into every aspect, including when to check and how to take one in return. The board took the report and came up with the two motions that were defeated.
"I think there is a lot of common ground," said Mr. Makarchuk, who was asked what advice he'd pass along to other Canadian minor-hockey associations wrestling with the same dilemma. "Review the medical data. Having bodychecking [in peewee], the risks are too high and they're credible. At age 11, 12, kids are more susceptible to long-term effects from concussions."
In August, Hockey Calgary will meet again to propose a motion asking Hockey Alberta to enter the bodychecking/peewee debate and make a provincewide ruling. Should that motion go forward, it won't change anything for the coming season. Bodychecking continues in Calgary – and so does the debate.