Hockey players who learn to bodycheck at a young age have the same risk of serious head and neck injuries as those who start checking later, a new study from the University of Alberta has found.
The study, published this month by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicinein an early online release, adds to a growing body of research that counters the popular theory that children who learn to bodycheck sooner will learn to be more skilled at it, reducing their risk of injury as they advance through minor hockey.
"There are circles out there who would say that if you introduce bodychecking earlier, such as atom [ages 9 and 10], it's more of a learned skill and bodychecking becomes more instinctive, and therefore there are less injuries as you go on," lead author Andrew Harris said. "But with our study we didn't find that. There was no significant difference."
In an analysis of emergency room visits by Edmonton-area hockey players, the researchers showed that the group who started bodychecking as young as 10 were just as likely to suffer fractures, concussions and other serious head and neck injuries as those who started checking one year later.
After receiving the new study, Hockey Edmonton general manager Dean Hengel said the association would not be increasing its bodychecking age-limit from the peewee level, (11 and 12).
"Our programs are running in compliance with the Hockey Canada bylaws, and the rules of hockey as defined and accepted by Hockey Canada. As it sits today, we will have bodychecking in peewee hockey," he said.
Red flags raised by similar studies have influenced policy changes in minor hockey leagues across North America. Calgary's 24 minor-hockey association presidents will vote on June 23 on a proposal to ban bodychecking at the peewee level. Quebec does not allow bodychecking in peewee games. Ontario has eliminated it from all levels in house league programs and some B.C. regions have banned it from recreational leagues.
Last year, USA Hockey banned bodychecking in peewee games nationwide.
Some critics have called for Hockey Canada to amend its rule, which says peewee is the youngest age that bodychecking is allowed. With age limits varying between regions, they argue a national standard must be set.
That way, it would avoid run-ins between players who are used to bodychecking and those who are not – possibly including peewee players from Calgary and Edmonton, starting in September.
However, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey development, Paul Carson, said a change is not in the works – and it's up to individual associations to decide whether to increase the age limit. "Everybody has to take a look at the information that is available," he said.
The Alberta study gathered injury emergency room data from Edmonton, Le Duc and St. Albert spanning 13 hockey seasons from 1997 through 2010. They split them into two groups: one before and one after a 2002 policy change which lowered the age requirement for minor hockey levels by one year. In some jurisdictions, this resulted in the introduction of bodychecking for players as young as 9 and 10.
Harris pointed out that other studies have shown that injury rates surge when bodychecking is introduced to the game – regardless of age group. They include a 2010 study by University of Calgary researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, who found bodychecking more than triples the risk of concussion and other serious injuries in peewee hockey.
Donald Voaklander, study co-author and director of the University of Alberta's Centre for Injury Control and Research, said he would like to see bodychecking introduced at the bantam level, partly because there is less variation in the body sizes of 13 and 14 year olds. But, he said he would expect some pushback, particularly as it pertains to elite athletes.
"It's hard with the Double-A and Triple-A, because every parent and every coach think they're going to be the coach that coached that guy who's the next Wayne Gretzky, " he said. "You don't get a lot of parents and coaches at that level saying you need to reduce injuries."