Canadian Hockey Needs Major Overhaul Safety Expert

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Canadian hockey needs major overhaul: safety expert

Team Canada is chasing yet another gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship, but Émile Thérien has some serious concerns about the future of Canada’s national game.

Thérien is the former president of the Canada Safety Council and he was one of the leaders in the campaign for the greater use of facial protection in the 1970s. More recently, Thérien has turned his attention to the problems of concussion and other injuries in the game.

There might be some who dismiss Thérien as an alarmist who doesn’t understand the game, but he has solid hockey credentials. He attended St. Lawrence University on a hockey scholarship – he came after Jacques Martin and before Geoff Molson at St. Lawrence – and he knows what it’s like to be a hockey parent. His son, Chris, attended Providence College on a hockey scholarship and went on to play 12 seasons in the National Hockey League.

In his current role as a health and safety advocate, Thérien has turned his attention to the question of bodychecking in minor hockey.

Thérien notes that a joint study by the University of Calgary, McGill University and Université Laval tracked injuries to 2,200 Peewee players through the 2007-08 season. It showed that 11- and 12-year-old hockey players in leagues that allow body checking are 2.5 times more likely to get hurt and 3.5 times more likely to suffer a concussion.

In Quebec, players do not bodycheck until Bantam (ages 13 to 14), and even then only at the elite levels. In Alberta, body checking begins at the Peewee level (ages 11 and 12. The findings make a case for raising the body checking age and for limiting body checking at all levels.

One of the researchers, Dr. Carolyn Emery from the department of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, estimated a ban on body checking in Peewee hockey would eliminate more than 1,000 injuries and 400 concussions annually among the nearly 9,000 Peewee players in Alberta.

Thérien points to research that shows traumatic brain injuries from hits to the head can lead to severe and lifelong consequences. Dr. Shree Bhalerao, director of medical psychiatry at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and Deborah Pink, a resident in psychiatry at the University of Toronto, have found hits to the head can cause post-concussive symptoms, cognitive disorders, depression, personality changes and substance abuse.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported 8,000 hockey-related injuries in Ontario hospital emergency rooms in the 2002-03 season. Among players 18 and under, 62 per cent of the injuries were a result of checking. Such injuries were the most common among 14- to 16-year-old players who have been exposed to body checking for several years.

Thérien said concern over injuries is prompting more and more parents to keep their kids out of hockey.

“The main reason kids play any sport is for fun and getting hurt is no fun,” Thérien said. “Hitting and the risk of serious injuries, including concussions, remove the motivation.”

He notes that enrolment in Hockey Canada teams is currently 572,000 players, down more than 200,000 from its peak, and further losses have been projected.

“Fear of injuries drives young players away from the game,” Thérien said. “Consequently, participation in the sport is going down. As the pool of talent dwindles, so does the quality and talent level of those who go on to represent Canada internationally.”

Thérien said the trend in the United State is going in the opposite direction.

The number of players registered with USA Hockey rose from 195,000 in 1990-91 to 500,579 in 2010. More than 100,000 children under the age of 9 registered to play hockey in the U.S. in 2010, a 15-per-cent increase from 2008.

Thérien said the American system is doing a better job of developing players.

“Their Program of Excellence has more elite athletes playing the sport,” Thérien said. “Currently more than 58 universities and colleges play Division I hockey; that number is growing. In addition, 74 colleges play NCAA Division II and Division III hockey, and 447 colleges have club hockey teams (men’s and women’s), including many of the large universities in the West and Southeast.

“Canada has no comparable development programs. Our system is built on and caters exclusively to the Canadian Hockey League and its member teams, which are in effect, commercial entities.”

Thérien believes that nothing short of a major overhaul will turn the tide for Canadian hockey. He said Hockey Canada must confront the question of injuries, access to local programs and facilities, the cost of participation and development issues facing young players born late in the year.

“Until now, the hockey establishment has not been held accountable,” Thérien said.

“Is it up to the challenge? Don’t count on it! For leadership, look to the medical community, school officials, health and safety researchers and advocates, and other concerned organizations and individuals. Hopefully, it’s not too late to change direction and save our game, with its strong historical and cultural roots.”

Pat Hickey

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