When Hockey Canada announced in late May a ban on bodychecking until the bantam age group, I wasn’t sure what to think. That’s because I can appreciate both sides of the argument. I’m inclined to agree with those who believe not allowing bodychecking until the age of 13 will keep our children and their brains safe.
But I can also see the point of the legions of people who think that if bodychecking is taught properly – from the giving, receiving and respect for opponent perspectives – it is a skill that is just as essential to the game as skating, stickhandling and shooting.
But most of all, I couldn’t help but think of Matthew Kostuch, and how this ruling came almost six years too late for him. As a 10-year-old playing AAA youth hockey, Kostuch was drilled into the boards, right in front of a referee, by an opposing player who chased him down from the other side of the ice like a predator.
Six years later, Kostuch can no longer play contact sports of any kind and still suffers from discomfort, nausea and severe headaches. Instead, he runs 10 kilometers in 42 minutes, participates in half marathons and is an up-and-coming on-ice official. But it’s not the same as playing. “The game he loves the most,” said his father, Jim, “took him out of the game he loves the most.”
In 2009-10, Hockey Canada recorded 1,543 concussions, which is a small fraction of how many actually were sustained because that number reflects only the injuries in which an insurance claim was made. It’s impossible to determine how many of those were the result of bodychecking in peewee hockey, but I’d be willing to venture a guess that not many of them were the result of clean, technically efficient and responsible checks where the only intent is to knock the opponent off the puck.
I bet the vast majority of them were because of predatory hits that go way beyond the rules, like the one Matthew Kostuch took when he was just 10 years old. And that, to me, is why there has to be a ban on bodychecking at the lower age levels. Actually, I’d be all for taking it out completely at every age level below AAA, which is the elite level of hockey in most jurisdictions in North America.
The problem is, there’s something about our game that often brings out the worst in us, whether that’s as players or coaches. If all the hits in hockey were clean, hard and done properly and with respect, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. There would be hitting at all levels of hockey and with the exception of the occasional unfortunate incident, everyone would probably be able to live with that. But the “hit to hurt” mentality has filtered down from the highest levels of hockey to the lowest and, as a result, you have far too many situations where body contact is used as a tactic to intimidate, even at the youth hockey level, and that results in too many hits to the head that are leaving vulnerable brains like Matthew Kostuch’s scrambled for years after they are injured.
It’s kind of like fighting. If all NHL fights were the result of two players, who can actually play the game, settling a score in a highly emotional affair, that would be one thing. But once you condone – and promote – fighting, it leaves it open to be used as a tactic, or at the very least, a sideshow.
That then leads to the evolution of enforcers and goons, who have one purpose. And that purpose is to keep the skilled players safe, often from the goons and enforcers who are supposed to be keeping everyone safe out there. It creates a vicious cycle from which there is no escape.
That is, unless you outlaw it altogether, the way Hockey Canada did across the country with the atom and peewee age groups. It’s a sad statement, when you come to think of it, that coaches and players in youth hockey are unable to handle the responsibility that comes with body contact without abusing it to the point where it has to be taken away from them.
I still have some real concerns about this, one of which is that bodychecking is now being introduced at an age when young men are beginning to grow into their bodies, are beginning to physically mature as men and may be looking for an outlet for aggression. With no training in body contact until then, I wonder what kinds of players will be unleashed on the ice in the future.
But when it comes down to it, removing hitting until bantam hockey will save lots of brains from being scrambled for nothing. And that’s a good thing.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of THN magazine.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.