The 2013 decision to disallow body checking at minor hockey's pee-wee level has produced major results, according to a University of Calgary study that will be presented at an International Olympic Committee world conference in Monaco.
The study shows that the introduction of Hockey Canada's body-checking rule resulted in "a 50-per-cent relative reduction in injury rate and a 64-per-cent reduction in concussion rate in 11-year-old and 12-year-old hockey players in Alberta."
The data, to be shown next week at the IOC's conference on prevention of injury and illness in sport, was collected from players on 59 then 73 pee-wee teams in all divisions before the body-checking rule changed (the 2011-12 season) and after (2013-14). The study was in response to Hockey Canada's call for a national ban, which sparked fiery debate between those who wanted body checking introduced in pee wee and those who wanted it taught and used in bantam, the next age group up.
Dr. Carolyn Emery, one of the study's researchers at the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre in the U of C's faculty of kinesiology, said the reduction in the number of injuries and concussions was expected, but not to the extent that was calculated.
"It's very exciting when you do research and there's a significant change," Emery said from France while en route to Monaco. "The big concern in pee wee is there's a huge disparity in size [and growth rates] and there are also young and developing brains. As we go forward, what we're seeing is a policy change in non-elite levels in the older age groups. That's quite the reverse. We see that provincially in B.C., in Ontario and in Calgary."
The study showed there were 163 game-related injuries and 104 concussions in Alberta before the rule change. After the alteration, there were 48 injuries and 25 concussions.
For Ash Kolstad, the study has been especially meaningful. He suffered a concussion playing pee wee at the age of 12 and had to stay home for a week. His second concussion just two weeks after his return to action was the one that ended his hockey-playing aspirations.
Driven head-first into the boards, Kolstad couldn't stand light and had to stay in a dark room. He missed a year of school and saw seven specialists to deal with his symptoms, from the constant headaches he still endures to the loss of balance that at one point wouldn't let him walk more than three steps before he'd fall over.
"I was just trying to get back my life," he said.
Thanks to his mom, who worked at the U of C's kinesiology department, Kolstad's story was relayed to Emery. Having released a 2012 study examining the risks of allowing body checking, Emery brought Kolstad aboard first as "a poster boy for the project" and then as a research assistant.
He is now 19, a third-year kinesiology student, and working on a separate study that is exploring the body-checking policy change on player performance before and after body checking was banned in pee wee.
"I'm very passionate about this," he said. "To be a part of it and see things change [for the better, for other players], I'm really lucky."
Emery added the body-checking study will continue to follow young hockey players over the years and in various age groups as well.
The other researchers in the study being presented at the IOC injury-prevention conference are Drs. Brent Hagel, Willem Meeuwisse, Kathryn Schneider, Luz Palacios-Derflingher and Alberto Nettel-Aguirre.