Last week, a study was released from a university in the Greater Toronto Area that concluded with a very bold declaration: Bodychecking in minor hockey was associated with an increased risk of injury to players.
This hasn’t been the first study of its kind, but upon discovering the story I had to lean back in my chair, exhale calmly and politely wonder in my mind, “Is this really what the hockey protectionist lobby has come to?”
Newsflash: Fastballs up and in are more likely to cause concussions than change-ups low and away.
As is the case with the fighting debate, the over-protective onlookers will glance at the situation and figure the best way to solve the problem is to add another rule or slam down another barrier. The conclusion of Alison Macpherson, a professor in the school of Kinesiology and Health Science at York was that, “the findings from all but one support recommendations that children should play in non-contact hockey leagues until they are at least at the bantam level – 13 years of age.”
I strongly believe this is the exact opposite move that should be made.
As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I have 10 years experience as an official in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association. From ‘DD’ level hockey in my home center to triple-A being played in nearby Rama/Gravenhurst, I saw various levels of competitiveness and it’s quite obvious a decision on a subject such as this would affect the smaller, more remote centers greater than anywhere else.
In Peewee house league in a smaller area, the difference between larger and smaller players results in a much heavier discrepancy when it comes to intimidation and impact. In those smaller places you’re always going to have kids who can’t skate as well or aren’t at the same physical advancement, whereas at higher competition levels, teams are built solely for winning. I can recall many times as a ref fearing certain taller kids – in their first year of body contact – going into the corner with a defender, hoping a reputation for overzealous aggression didn’t endanger their unsuspecting counterpart.
But say we introduced bodychecking at an early age, say, the earliest age in hockey? Back in the day – when, as legend has it, Reader’s Digests were used as jocks and SK10’s were actually used for protection – bodychecking was taught pretty much from the get-go. If kids are taught about the art and proper use of a bodycheck as they learn to skate and play the game, it will be more second nature and less a source of ire.
It’s a better skill to teach while kids are all relatively the same size and skill level – and when they are too small to hurt each other – than to open it up in their early teens when size varies and aggression is considered funny. If you teach hitting from the beginning, by the time the kids turn 12, 13, 14, bodychecking isn’t something awkward or new and ‘Johnny 6-foot-2’ doesn’t have something to prove.
Start teaching the kids how to properly throw and absorb a bodycheck when they are six or seven years old when no real damage can be done. If that’s too much, at least start it at eight years old in Novice before any growth spurts start kicking in and when rep players start to be divided from house leaguers.
The bodycheck is a skill unique to hockey in its effectiveness and has to be taught correctly. The further you push how long kids learn about it into the future, the more dangerous you’re making the learning curve when it happens.
Why is the initial reaction always for more bubble wrap? Whatever happened to the idea of building a little character? Who out there has had to overcome a size disadvantage to make a team before? Who out there hasn’t driven to the net with the puck and crashed hard into the end boards? Who hasn’t been caught with a hard hit, but jumped right back up again? Who out there wasn’t exposed to a little “helmets and gloves” after practice? And who out there didn’t come back for more next Sunday?
The last thing hockey needs is another change-up low and away for a walk down to first base.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.