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Bodychecking ban positive step for hockey

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Hockey Canada last weekend eliminated bodychecking for players 12 years of age and under. All hockey fans and parents should applaud this decision.

The debate over when to allow hitting in hockey has always been emotional in this country; an appetite for ferocious hits is part of the culture of Canadian hockey. Players and parents can attest to the fact it is virtually impossible to advance in Canada's minor hockey system without demonstrating an affinity for and tolerance of the more violent aspects of the game.

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And yet, growing numbers of parents and players have started demanding a game where gratuitous, indiscriminate bodychecking -- those hits designed to punish and intimidate -- is brought under control. This is not a bid to end bodychecking, but rather a return to the spirit of the original rules of the game, which to this day include measures to control the violence of hits.

It is in this context Hockey Canada decided to push bodychecking back to the teenage years. It is the first change in the rules governing bodychecking in nearly 20 years.

There will be much debate, of course, even though the most informed hockey minds have good reason to believe this will prevent injuries and also likely improve the overall quality of Canadian hockey at its elite level.

"The goal really is to make sure people understand this is not taking contact out of the sport," said Paul Carson, vice-president hockey development for Hockey Canada. "This is about reapplying contact to make the game safer and to emphasize skill development."

A lot of the credit for this decision has to go to Quebec, which made the decision to delay bodychecking until bantam several years ago. In doing so, Quebec was able to determine empirically the impact of full bodychecking in peewee hockey.

Not surprisingly, 11- and 12-year-olds who bodychecked were three times more likely to suffer injury than those who played without hitting. The Quebec data also debunked another long-standing theory, namely delaying hitting would create a greater number of injuries at the bantam (13 and 14) level and above. Again, Quebec showed no increase in injuries among teenage players who were not allowed to hit in peewee.

The Quebec numbers encouraged Alberta and Nova Scotia to voluntarily ban hitting in peewee.

OK, so peewee-age kids will be safer and the delay does not stunt development at older age levels. Many critics will still argue the ban will hurt Canada in the elite levels of hockey. They will argue that, but they will be wrong. Again, simple mathematics reveals all.

Fewer Canadian kids are playing hockey each year, both because of the growing cost and the violence of the sport. Most who drop out do so at or just after peewee when hitting starts. Hockey Canada believes an emphasis on ferocious hitting is culling skilled players and limiting skill development in those that do tough it out. As a result, we are drawing elite players from a smaller, less-skilled pool.

The proof of this trend is already evident. Each year, Canada contributes a smaller and smaller percentage to the total players employed in the National Hockey League. The theory, substantiated by current draft trends, is professional teams are more interested now in players with pure skill than those with a propensity for violence. That is to say, the NHL is more interested in players from countries where bodychecking is present, but not in a gratuitous or excessive fashion.

Unfortunately, banning bodychecking at the peewee level will not change the situation on its own. The bigger challenge is to change the culture of hockey and bodychecking. Hockey Canada will attempt to do that with new national standards for coaches on how to teach bodychecking in time for the 2014-15 season.

Carson said the guidelines will stress the importance of a "puck-first mentality" where bodychecking is primarily a method for separating a player from the puck. "The goal of bodychecking should never be to bury someone in the end boards," he said. "This is a discussion we need to continue on both the coaching and officiating side."

The development of national standards, Carson added, will also try to settle long-standing debates over traditions such as "finishing the check." Although not referenced in the rule book, most players, coaches and referees believe you can deliver a bodycheck several seconds after a player has given up the puck. No one has ever attempted to create a guideline for how late a player can finish a check, even though it is acknowledged as one of the most dangerous plays in all of hockey.

Bodychecking is not the only reason kids avoid or give up hockey. And pushing back the age for hitting will not modernize the culture of hockey. But it is an important step towards reinventing a game that has lost its way.

This isn't a clear goal. Think of it as a strong, accurate breakout pass that sets up hockey for great things down the road.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2013 B1

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