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Research Supports Checking Ban

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Research Supports Checking Ban November 19, 2012 7:38 AM

Nobody’s interested in the facts if they get in the way of what people want to believe.

In hockey, people apparently want to believe that bodychecking in the minor divisions prepares players for the robust contact they’ll encounter at higher levels of play when they enter "the real world" of competitive sport. They want to believe that the consequences are exaggerations by namby-pamby do-gooders who want to deprive children of an opportunity to build character through exposure to physical violence.

Thus, when a minor hockey executive in Alberta recently discussed getting rid of body-checking for peewees, irate Calgary parents and minor hockey officials drove him from office.

Advocating for reforms in minor hockey to reduce the most egregious and unnecessary injuries to the youngest and most vulnerable players sometimes feels – pardon the analogy – like beating one’s head against a brick wall.

But here we go again.

Yet another brain surgeon with a global reputation calls for steps to reduce head trauma for the youngest athletes – those under the age of 14 – whose stage of physical development makes them susceptible to disproportionate degrees of brain injury.

Robert Cantu of Boston University’s medical school – a lead researcher on a study of degenerative brain disease from repeated concussions – says kids younger than 14 are especially vulnerable to brain trauma because their heads are larger as a proportion of body size while the strength of supporting neck muscles are weaker than are those of more mature athletes.

This results in a "bobble-head" effect that amplifies the effects of robust physical contact. So the hit that an 18-yearold junior hockey player might easily shake off can cause significant injury to the brain of a peewee or bantam player.

Worse, the results of head trauma for young players might not even be evident to medical experts, let alone coaches, parents and players relying on such innovations as Hockey Canada’s smart phone app to advise them how to recognize symptoms.

That idea’s not bad, since it raises awareness, but two problems accompany it. First, when concussion symptoms appear, the damage is already done and your kid’s brain is injured. Second, a recent study found that even pediatricians often don’t have the tools to diagnose and treat young patients with concussions, so good luck with that smart phone diagnosis.

Medical science now shows grim pathological evidence pointing to lifelong consequences from such injuries that can diminish the quality and length of life in later years.

Bill Barrable, CEO at the Rick Hansen Institute, drew my attention to some of this new research recently.

He’s been urging BC Hockey to follow the leads of Hockey Quebec and the Ontario Hockey Federation and just get rid of bodychecking in peewee hockey. It’s an element that is clearly not in the interests of the health, safety or enjoyment of the game for young players.

Furthermore, like Toronto neurologist Charles Tator, Bar-rable suggests a major re-think of programs that allow players from younger age levels to compete with older players. Two-tier age structures, which focus on skills rather than the disproportionate sizes of players and physical development, exacerbate the "bobblehead" effect that so concerns the Boston brain surgeon.

When we read stories about the recent suspension of a 14-year-old player from the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association – benched after a series of bodychecks resulted in serious injuries for three opponents, including one ruptured spleen – it’s easy to see Barrable’s argument.

A study of bodychecking and associated injury risk for minor hockey players compared Quebec, where bodychecking in peewee is banned, with Alberta, where it’s endorsed. It then examined the injury rates at the next level, bantam, to discover whether those first introduced to body checking when they moved up were more susceptible to injuries than those exposed in peewee.

The findings were conclusive. The rate of injury for peewee players in Alberta was more than triple the rate for Quebec. The rate of diagnosed concussions for Alberta peewees was almost four times as great.

But in bantam, the injury rates were identical. Banning bodychecking for peewees had zero impact on their ability to play the more robust game at the higher level. But banning bodychecks for Alberta peewees would prevent more than a thousand serious injuries and more than 425 concussions each season. Add that up over a decade and you get a reduction of more than 10,000 seriously injured children and more than 4,250 brain injuries. This is significant.

The science-based evidence is quite clear. Bodycheck-ing should be abolished from peewee hockey. Foot-dragging, obfuscating and denial by adults betray the children whose well-being they are responsible for protecting. And they betray the principles of minor sport, which aims to improve children’s health and pleasure in physical fitness, not ruin it.

But who cares about the science when people want to believe otherwise?

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