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Officials to discuss banning bodychecks

Hockey Canada may increase age at which contact is allowed

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If you've ever cringed watching a little guy get crushed in the corner in a minor hockey game, you're not alone.

Maybe you've held your breath while that little 70-pound kid has to be helped to the bench. Or perhaps you shouted at him to get off the ice if he can't take a hit.

Regardless, Hockey Alberta has taken a stand on the age bodychecking is introduced in minor hockey and Manitoba may soon follow suit.

The sport's governing body in Alberta announced Wednesday it will ban bodychecking at the peewee (11-12) age division for the 2013-2014 season. Alberta joins Quebec as the only Hockey Canada associations to have bodychecking begin at the bantam (13-14) level.

"My understanding is this is going to be discussed further at the Hockey Canada AGM, which will take place at the end of the month," said Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods, referring to the annual general meeting May 24-26 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

"I anticipate a very strong possibility that this regulation will be adopted in some format or another and there will be a change in contact and what age it will be introduced nationally. Hockey Manitoba hasn't made a decision at this particular stage but certainly we'll be in compliance with the national regulation."

Woods said if Hockey Canada makes the change, it would be implemented in Manitoba for the 2013-2014 season.

The issue pits the increased attention to player safety, especially the prevention of concussions, against the idea bodychecking is a major part of the game, particularly for players advancing to elite levels.

"The traditionalists will certainly be upset that you're not going to be hitting at that particular age group; however, I think what is of paramount importance is the safety of the participants," Woods said. "Certainly the evidence and statistics point toward players being injured at that particular age are being exposed to the physicality of the game. By delaying that, players can grow into their bodies a little bit more."

Dr. Brian Benson, director of the Sport Concussion Clinic at the University of Calgary Sport Medicine Centre, told the Globe and Mail that "Recent evidence suggests removing bodychecking at the peewee level will reduce the players' risk of concussions and injuries overall by more than three-fold."

Paul Carson, vice-president of development for Hockey Canada, said the focus for young players should be skill development.

"I really believe that youngsters need an opportunity to develop a very broad set of early skills and my concern is that the development of those skills is interrupted when the checking game is introduced," Carson told The Canadian Press. "It's always been an emotional issue and I hope people can move a little bit to the left and look squarely at the issues of safety, skill development and make the decisions based on what we do know."

Hockey Winnipeg president Don McIntosh said the city's minor hockey programs would follow Hockey Canada's lead. He said players' safety is directly linked to participation, as players will stay in the game longer if they feel safe.

"I think we wouldn't lose as many 11- and 12-year-olds, to be honest. I'm sure that has a lot to do with bodychecking, personally," McIntosh said, noting there is a significant decline in player registrations between the atom, peewee and bantam age groups.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2013 A7

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