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Youth hockey must be safe

The debate over whether youth hockey should or shouldn't be made less physical has been raging in Canada for many years, with recent high-profile injuries among NHL stars only serving to ramp up the questions and the controversy.

The debate over whether youth hockey should or shouldn't be made less physical has been raging in Canada for many years, with recent high-profile injuries among NHL stars only serving to ramp up the questions and the controversy.

The Canadian Medical Association recently released the findings of an extensive study into contact hockey among youth players, adding another chapter to the already lengthy hockey debate.

The CMA study looked at whether bodychecking causes more injuries among young players at the peewee and bantam levels.

According to the study's findings, the age that young players start bodychecking has little or no impact on their chances of being injured or suffering a concussion.

Researchers looked at 1,000 bantam level players (12 and 13 years old) in Alberta, where bodychecking is allowed from the peewee level (10 and 11 years old).

They also looked at similar players in Quebec where bodychecking is not allowed at the peewee level.

The study found 272 injuries and 51 concussions among the Alberta players, and 244 injuries and 49 concussions among the Quebec players.

While the CMA researchers found little difference between contact and non-contact players when it comes to injuries and concussions, the study's authors have been quick to caution against drawing the conclusion that bodychecking is completely safe.

“These findings need to be interpreted in light of previous evidence of more than a threefold increased risk of concussion and all injury among players aged 11–12 years in a league where bodychecking is permitted," said Dr. Carolyn Emery, the study's principal researcher and a University of Calgary sport epidemiologist.

Obviously the recent CMA study has, if anything, made the issue of bodychecking and injuries even more clouded and more open to debate.

At the same time, Hockey Canada has been working hard to address concerns over hockey-related injury.

For example, the organization recently announced new zero-tolerance rules against hits to the head, rules that cover players at all levels from minor through junior and senior ranks.

Hockey's popularity in West Central Alberta has never been greater, with kids and young adults alike playing thousands and thousands of competitive games every season.

And while there have been no calls in this area to take contact out of youth hockey – nor should there be – work to ensure that the sport is safe for players of all levels should and must continue.

And if that means better equipment, more extensive coach and player training and/or rule changes, then so be it.

At the same time any suggestion that Hockey Canada and other stakeholder groups should leave well enough alone when it comes to hockey's physical side are definitely offside.