Checking Out: Breaking-down the Peewee hitting debate

Hockey Now

by Andrew Chong

February 19, 2014 (ISN) – The debate around Peewee bodychecking isn’t likely to cool down anytime soon. Can Canadians get on the same page with how to best protect minor hockey players from concussions and other injuries?

For many hockey parents who grew-up playing minor hockey, all this talk about concussions and bodychecking is pretty unfamiliar.

I’ve talked to several hockey dads who wonder how many undiagnosed concussions they may have had, back when they were kids.

Hockey has evolved to a place where player safety is at the forefront of seemingly everyone’s mind—from minor, to Junior, to pro.

And Hockey Canada’s recent ban of bodychecking at the Peewee level (11- and 12-year-olds), back in May, is a sign that player safety is being taken more seriously than ever. Before the ban, Quebec already had no hitting; and Alberta and Nova Scotia followed-suit, earlier in 2013.

And now, as the 2013/14 minor hockey season gets underway, life without Peewee bodychecking begins.

But though most Canadians can agree that protecting kids is paramount, and that nobody wants to see elementary school kids become brain injury statistics, there is still division in exactly how to make the game safer.

The bodychecking debate has been prevalent for decades, and will continue to be a hot button issue for decades to come; but there’s never been a more important time in hockey history, than right now, to get to that heart of the bodychecking debate and start pulling in the same direction.

The Watercooler Argument

To bodycheck or not to bodcheck, that is the question.

It seems like you can talk to any hockey person, coast to coast, and they’ve got an opinion – probably even a strong opinion – on the issue.

And the debate has been raging in recent months.

The big question: should 11- and 12-year-olds be allowed to hit in Peewee?

On one side, you’ve got Hockey Canada saying, no, they shouldn’t. And pretty much every provincial hockey governing body agrees.

The idea here is that removing bodychecking means less risk of concussions and other injuries; and thus, we’ve got safer kids.

On top of that, Peewee players aren’t worrying about getting crushed, every shift—the focus is on skill development: skating, stickhandling, making plays—things of that nature.

On the other side, there was one governing body that wanted to keep hitting in Peewee: the Saskatchewan Hockey Association (and Don Cherry is on their side, too).

The idea for developing bodychecking in Peewee better prepares players for Bantam, when kids are bigger and stronger, and there is often more size disparity—i.e. what happens when a 6-2, 200-pound Bantam runs into a 5-6, 145-pounder?

A price will be paid in Bantam, if the bodychecking development is not happening in Peewee—or so that argument goes.

Hard Numbers: The Case For Removing Bodychecking

A 2010 study by the University of Calgary, conducted by Dr. Carolyn Emery, a physiotherapist with a clinical practice specializing in sport medicine, found that introducing bodychecking in Peewee (rather than waiting until Bantam) triples the risk of concussions and other injuries.

The study followed 2,000 Peewee hockey players for one season: half in Alberta (bodychecking) and half in Quebec (no bodychecking). The results were 72 concussions in Alberta and 20 in Quebec. Based on that ratio, Emery suggested that if bodychecking were eliminated, just in Alberta, more than 400 game-related concussions could be avoided—and that doesn’t even factor in the rest of the country.

“While some (members of Hockey Canada’s board) would be reluctant (to remove bodychecking in Peewee) because of their traditional beliefs of the game, they also understood that the safety and the area of skill development were critical issues to consider,” said Paul Carson, VP of hockey development for Hockey Canada.

In general, the medical community has been outspokenly supportive of Hockey Canada’s decision to ban bodychecking.

Dr. Dean Karahalios, an Illinois-based neurosurgeon and representative of the NBA Players Association Second Opinion Network for Brain and Spine Injuries, and Dr. Andrew Link, president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, have been among the proponents to the ban.

Hard Numbers: The Case For Keeping Bodychecking

On the other hand, a study by Dr. Barry Willer, a leading concussion researcher and professor at the University of Buffalo, says raising the age would be a mistake and that the Emery study does not fully investigate the underlying reasons for concussions.

Willer, who has been studying brain injuries for a quarter-century and was introduced to concussions in hockey by Carl Lindros (Eric and Brett’s dad) in 1997, says the majority of hockey injuries (including concussions) occur as a result of incidental contact as opposed to deliberate bodychecks.

He says introducing bodychecking at a higher age could actually result in more injuries because the bigger and stronger age group would have underdeveloped bodychecking skills (in both giving bodychecks and receiving them).

Willer’s study followed 3,000 Burlington minor hockey players, from all levels, over a five-year period, starting in 2002. The data revealed a spike in injuries among players in the first year of introducing bodychecking, but that 66 per cent of injuries were caused by “unintentional collisions” (i.e. accidentally running into another player, running into the boards, falling to the ice, or crashing into the boards or goalposts.).

The Issue Goes Beyond Age

As the bodychecking issue continues to evolve, we will likely see a push for elite players at younger ages to be allowed to hit.

After all, why should two elite AAA 12-year-olds, just two or three years away from being identified by Junior hockey scouts, not be allowed to hit, when you’ve got Bantam house players, sometimes with a dramatic size disparity, throwing bodychecks?

It’s a complicated issue.

“[Age may look like the heart of the issue] on the surface,” said Paul Carson. “There are those that feel bodychecking should be a part of this sport from the day youngsters start playing; there are those that feel there should be a specific age that it’s first introduced.

“Further to that, there are those that feel there is a division between recreational hockey and competitive hockey.

“In small rural communities, there may be a finite number of players in an age group so then, how do you classify between competitive and recreational?”

If there are going to be exceptions made for certain players to bodycheck, then drawing that line will prove to be one of the biggest challenges.

The Point Of Bodychecking

At its fundamental core, bodychecking is about separating your opponent from the puck—it’s a skill more than it is about destroying another player.

Brad May, 20-year NHL vet and current Sportsnet analyst, says there’s a big difference between trying to get puck control and trying to hurt someone.

“I have no problem with hockey having no hitting. I think, as you advance up the ladder to different levels and have aspirations to play at the higher levels, hitting becomes as much of a skill as skating,” he said. “And I think a lot of coaches coach the wrong way because they’re trying to get these kids to run each other over and knock each other down, as opposed to the real skill part: hitting to separate the opposing player from the puck. It’s all about time and space as you get older.

“I think a lot of these kids are misinformed on the idea of a hit and what it’s supposed to be.”

Nineteen-year-old Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs says the onus is on coaches to help players navigate hitting, when the time comes.

“I think the coaches have to teach the kids how to properly hit and properly take a hit,” he said. “As a player going into your first year of hitting, you have to be cautious that you’re not trying to hurt people or hit for the wrong reasons.

“You’re just trying to use your body to take back the puck.”

The Heart Of The Matter

Over recent years of talking to people from all walks of hockey life, one thing keeps coming up when you get to the core of this bodychecking issue: it’s all about respect.

Bray May couldn’t agree more.

“You don’t have to skate 100 miles an hour,” he said. “How about the respect factor? When I played, if I catch a guy in a vulnerable position, I tell him I’m coming if he has his head down: ‘look out, I’m coming.’ Then, the next time maybe I didn’t tell him I was coming. But you’re there to separate the man from the puck.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff with spinal chord research and Shoot For A Cure and all that stuff; the biggest skill is awareness of where you are and where the other kid is that you’re hitting—the worst hits are going to be right in the centre of the ice because somebody’s going to let-up and turn and blow a knee or whatever; and the other worst spot is three feet from the boards.

May says the NHL fighter sorority takes respect very seriously—and it’s one of the best examples of honour in the game.

“I was in 300 fights,” he said. “I carry zero grudges because it’s all about respect. We had a job to do; he did, I did it—good for us, both.

“And hopefully we each made a difference in that game for our team.”

Rielly says going out of your way to try and hammer someone is not just bad for the game, it’s bad for your team.

“When you have a chance to hit a guy, you have to be able to do that; but I don’t think there should be anybody going across the whole ice to try to make a big hit and try to hurt a guy,” he said. “You just have to hit when you can but don’t over-do it.

“If you’re going way out of your way to hit somebody, you’re caught out of position—and sacrificing position isn’t something that any team wants when you’re trying to win.”

The Big Conclusions

No matter what happens to bodychecking, body contact is a part of the game for Peewees and below. That means, there will be rubbing-out, there will be players sliding through checks, and there will be firmness along the boards—but no, that doesn’t mean kids are allowed to take runs at each other.

Very few people seem to actually believe that we need to wrap kids in Styrofoam and eliminate all body contact. You can’t compromise the integrity of the game like that.

Furthermore, with the removal of bodychecking comes (at least, in theory) a higher importance placed on skill development. More skilled players – when accompanied by a sense of respect – should mean better, cleaner, safer gameplay (again, at least, in theory): more on-ice awareness, more strategic gameplay, stronger skaters, and more skillful use of stick and body to check an opponent—things like that.

And, of course, no matter how good your helmet is, how strict the rules are, or how good skill development is, injuries will happen—and that includes head injuries.

Hockey is a fast, aggressive, instant-reaction sport and you’re going to have injuries when you throw 12 humans inside that glass. There will always be incidental contact, there will always be accidents, and there will always be players who push the envelope—that’s just the way this sport is.

So, with the start of this no-bodychecking-in-Peewee season, whatever side you’re on, you have to at least take some comfort in knowing that, as a country, we are getting more serious than ever about protecting the next generation of players.

And maybe, at least when it comes to player safety, most of Canada is starting to get on the same page.