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Hockey Shifting ice and minor hockey’s tipping point

Her father knows how lucky she is because she's back on the ice, trying out in goal against 13- and 14-year-old boys. Nineteen months ago, Isla Edmonds couldn't muster the concentration to go to school.

In her final season of peewee AA with the Ottawa Sting, Edmonds had her helmeted head banged against a goal post. She felt dizzy, her vision was off. Then things got worse. She had headaches, couldn't stand bright lights. She was constantly tired and missed school for close to a month.

Now, thankfully, she's playing again – "symptom-free," said her dad, Dale Edmonds-Mutcher – and that makes Isla something of a good-news story for Canadian minor hockey.

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It's that time again, time for our autumn passage when children across Canada skate through tryouts and evaluations in preparation for a season's worth of practices and games. But there's a difference this September.

Rarely, if ever, has minor hockey experienced such a wave of change, from how the game is played (no more bodychecking for children under 13) to how its administrators address the issues that have been draining away the sport's lifeblood, its registration and retention numbers.

Not only is hockey having a harder time attracting children, it's having an equally challenging task keeping them, and the reasons why were outlined in a pair of reports, one involving Bauer Hockey Inc. that questioned Ontario and Nova Scotia parents of non-hockey playing children, and another, more in-depth study done by the Toronto-based Charlton Strategic Research Inc. to examine why children leave the sport, some never to return.

The two studies were commissioned by Hockey Canada, the sport's national governing body. The Charlton report, which surveyed 1,865 hockey parents during the 2011-12 season, was just completed and meant for Hockey Canada use only. The data comes at a reader like the 1985 Edmonton Oilers, in waves. Some key points include:

National registration is up 17 per cent over the past decade, mostly because of an increase in adult leagues and girls' hockey. Seventy-nine per cent of the parents interviewed said their child will play again next season, but 21 per cent were at risk of leaving the game. Among those who had left the game, 58 per cent would "probably or definitely not" resume playing.

At the younger age groups, children left the game largely because they lost interest in it. At the 15-to-17 age level (midget), 70 per cent of parents said they are worried about injuries and safety. Three in 10 parents said they have a player who had suffered a concussion.

The encouraging news for Hockey Canada was the Charlton research determined non-bodychecking hockey would have the greatest impact bringing back players who had skated away from the game. It was an affirmation the no-bodychecking mandate presented by Hockey Canada, and passed by its board of directors in late May, was in keeping with how attitudes surrounding the game are changing.

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"It really is a societal shift," said Paul Carson, Hockey Canada's vice-president of development. "I think parents and families now are looking at the best opportunities for youngsters in sports and culture. We're much more discerning in what we do for our kids and what they want.

"What the Charlton and Bauer research did was evaluate a position that change is required and that the changes that have been started are proven to be correct."

The Bauer info identified four areas as to why parents and their children turned away from hockey: cost, safety, time commitment and a lack of fun.

The Charlton report confirmed those areas in greater detail stating, for example, the average cost for having a child in hockey was $2,898 in 2011-12. Carson acknowledged the validity of all four obstacles confronting minor hockey.

"While our [registration] numbers are up overall, we're losing market share," he said. "If 20 years ago, 15 per cent of young males 5 to 16 were playing hockey, today, it might be as low as 9 per cent. We need to look at what the trends are – what are the results five to 10 years down the road?"

This past August, Alberta's principal stakeholders gathered in Banff for the province's first hockey summit. Included were former NHL players Ken Dryden and Ryan Walter, former NHL and Olympic coach George Kingston, along with representatives from the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and the WHL.

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The discussion centred on how to make the game better, more attractive. Themes were discussed and put on paper. They dealt with: shared leadership across sports, which would allow parents to register children in multiple activities at a reduced cost; training volunteers and actively recruiting graduating players; developing a model for the ideal local minor-hockey association and how that would work; "reducing system bias" by removing "the perception of who the game is for."

"We have a one-size-fits-all hockey system," said Rob Litwinski, executive director of Hockey Alberta. "Some people want more and they're getting it through other means [private programs] outside of the Hockey Canada system. Likewise, the game is not that accepting to people who want to register but are newcomers to the sport.

"So many people want to try our game and we're saying, 'You need to try it with a 61/2 month program.' Why not less, so we're opening the door to non-traditional participants?"

Litwinski believes minor hockey's acceptance of new bodychecking rules speaks to a growing open-mindedness, certainly a willingness to debate matters and resolve them with facts. That being the case, Hockey Canada has yet to mandate baseline testing for all players to be used for identifying concussions and when a child should be ready to return.

Hockey Canada's position is baseline testing adds to what is already a parental concern – rising player costs. And yet there are those who have found a way to make it work.

Two years ago, the Seafair Minor Hockey Association in Richmond, B.C., decided to conduct baseline tests on its rep league players, atom age and up. Players were given a Sport Concussion Application Tool test (SCAT 2), a series of questions where the results were recorded and kept as a comparable after a player was believed to have suffered a brain injury.

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Last year, Seafair had its players do an online concussion test. This season, the association's board of directors has made baseline testing compulsory for all its players, atom and up. The players are given a SCAT 3 test and must also do the Axon Sports' online test. If a player has a concussion, they must then have a magnetic resonance imaging exam and do another round of tests before beginning their return-to-play protocol.

The cost for the testing? Parents are asked to make a donation that will go toward paying a small honorarium to the 10 athletic therapists who donate their time to conduct the tests.

"We can't prevent concussions but we can prevent kids from returning too early, so that they can keep playing and doing other things in life," said Cody Kusch, a Seafair vice-president whose own minor-hockey career was ended by a concussion. "We're one of three associations in Richmond but we've increased our enrolment over the last nine years. We have over 700 kids now."

Dealing with what ails the sport has undoubtedly grabbed minor hockey's attention, and the scale of fixing every problem for every team in every association is daunting in the least. But in growing numbers, people are willing to listen to arguments and examples of what has to change. For minor hockey in Canada, it's a new season in a far more meaningful way.

"I'd like to think when we look back – one, two, three or five years – that the [Banff] summit played a huge part in changing hockey in Alberta," Litwinski said. "We believe change is going to be necessary. We have this massive system and that's part of the challenge. It's a system that's been put together in a very traditional way and we need to look at things differently now.

"There's no silver bullet. We have a lot of work to do."

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As for Isla Edmonds, the 14-year-old goalie from Ottawa, she is fit and ready to continue on with the game she loves. Her father, like any parent, is cautiously optimistic about the future.

"As a goalie, I consider it a slightly more protected environment. She's not getting hit every game," Edmonds-Mutcher said of his daughter. "But as soon as something happened, I'd be wondering if I made the right decision [to let her play again]."

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