May 23, 2015


Hitting is the hardest part

For Hockey Canada, rewriting bodycheck rules is a key step in changing the culture of the game

It was not much of a shove.

It was midway through a tight 1-1 game between the 12A1 Fort Garry North Flyers and the 12A1 Dakota Lazers at St. Vital Arena. Drew Angers, a forward for the Flyers, was skating hard on the back check into his own zone. As he caught up to a Dakota winger trying to cut in with the puck from the boards, Angers gave him a shove. As soon as the Dakota player hit the deck, the referee’s arm went up to call a penalty.

If he had a say, Drew Angers would prefer to be bodychecking at the peewee level.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

If he had a say, Drew Angers would prefer to be bodychecking at the peewee level.

Last year, when Angers was an 11-year-old, that shove was not a penalty because Hockey Canada allowed bodychecking in his age group. This year, new rules banned bodychecking from peewee hockey (age 11 and 12 ), so that shove is now a penalty.

After the game, steam rising from his sweaty head, Angers was still a bit angry. "It’s pretty frustrating because even if you run into a guy accidentally, if he goes down, you get a penalty."

Teammate Josh Gardner added: "You have to be careful now, especially around smaller guys. They go down easy and you’ll get called every time."

When asked if they would prefer to bodycheck, both nodded their heads enthusiastically. "Absolutely," said Angers.

Hockey Canada’s decision this past summer to eliminate bodychecking in peewee hockey comes at an interesting time in the evolution of the game. From the NHL on down, a debate is raging about the way we play hockey, in particular the culture of bodychecking.

NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has handed out more and longer suspensions than ever before in a clear effort to provide a deterrent to players engaged in reckless play. That effort comes in the same season a group of ex-players filed a lawsuit against the NHL for not doing enough to protect them against concussions.

Chief among the allegations is that the NHL knew of the long-term health risks of repeated concussions, but did nothing to protect players. In many respects, Hockey Canada’s decision to delay the introduction of bodychecking is an attempt to, at the game’s youngest levels, ensure it is not guilty of the same mistake.

There has been a grudging acceptance in peewee hockey that the bodychecking ban is, on the whole, a reasonable measure to improve player safety.

Mike Angers, Drew’s father and head coach of the 12A1 Flyers, said there has been very little complaint from parents. "There was some concern about this when it first happened, but it really hasn’t affected the play as much as the naysayers thought it would."

Many of those parents might not remember in the previous season, when bodychecking was allowed, the size difference between the smallest and largest players often led to many inadvertent penalties, he said. This year, there seems to be fewer penalties of all kinds being called, he added.

However, Angers said there is still a lot of concern among parents whose kids want to play at the highest level next season — AA or AAA hockey. "Most or our parents were a bit disappointed it (the new age limits) came in this year, because they are looking forward to playing at the next level next year," said Angers. "And they know hitting will be a part of the game again."

The new Hockey Canada policy was not, in any sense, an impulsive decision. Over the past two decades, there has been growing data showing the relationship between bodychecking and serious injuries, including concussions.

The seminal research for Hockey Canada was a study involving Alberta and Quebec, which showed 11- and 12-year-olds who were allowed to bodycheck were three times more likely to suffer an injury than those who were not. Alberta and Nova Scotia did not wait for Hockey Canada to respond to the research — voting on their own to ban bodychecking for peewee players. Prior to that, Quebec was the only province to restrict bodychecking for all players below the age of 14.

With overwhelming medical data staring them in the face, the Hockey Canada directors — which include the heads of all the provincial hockey bodies — finally acted. However, even with these new measures, many in the highest levels of the game understand this alone will not solve the problem surrounding bodychecking.

Even with the new age limits for bodychecking, researchers at the University of Calgary Concussion and Brain Injury Initiative estimate 50,000 minor hockey players will suffer concussions in the current season alone.

Why is the press on now to deal with the culture of bodychecking? Simply put, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of boys taking up the game, and concern over bodychecking has been identified as one of the primary deterrents.

A 2012 internal Hockey Canada survey of parents, leaked to the Vancouver Sun this past summer, showed 20 per cent of all minor hockey players might leave the game because of cost, time commitment and risk of injury. For parents of older teens (15-17), the primary reason for their kids leaving hockey was "concerns about safety," including risk of concussions. More than 70 per cent of all parents in the survey said they were concerned about head injuries.

The Hockey Canada edict has not, however, ended the debate over when to introduce bodychecking to a sport that, frankly, will always be played at some level with more physical contact.

Opponents of the bodychecking ban, such as the Saskatchewan Hockey Association — the only provincial body to oppose the measure — have argued the focus should not be on when bodychecking is introduced, but rather how much work you put into teaching respectful body contact.

They point out hitting is a skill, much like skating and puck handling, and it must be taught early, so players are able to learn and develop confidence to give and receive checks. That skill, they argue, is what ultimately makes all players safer within a game that allows bodychecking.

Others point out the very nature of hockey involves some degree of risk, and families who do not like the risk level of hockey, especially at its highest and most competitive levels, should do something else.

Last summer, when the new age restrictions were introduced, Brandon player agent Darryl Wolski garnered headlines when he promised to start an independent league for peewee-age players who wanted to play full-contact hockey modelled on a similar loop in Minnesota. Although that league did not get off the ground, Wolski said he continues to hear from a lot of hockey families who are extremely unhappy with the new measures, in large part because they fear it will not prepare their kids to play at more competitive levels when they get older.

Wolski said that risk, as abhorrent as it may be to some people, is what helps separate the players with a real future in the game as professionals from talented enthusiasts.

"There is really only one way to play the game at the highest level and that’s aggressive," said Wolski. "It’s going to be like that no matter when you start to introduce hitting. And that means that there is a risk you must accept if you want to play top-level hockey."

Those who have advocated for the elimination of bodychecking at younger ages believe strongly the risk inherent in hockey is managed better when kids have been given a chance to develop skating, puckhandling and general hockey knowledge.

This is where opponents and proponents of the bodychecking ban come close to making the same point: perhaps we need to think more about how we teach bodychecking and less about the age at which we introduce it.

Emile Therien — former head of the Canada Safety Council and father to ex-NHL defenceman Chris Therien — has spent a lifetime arguing changes to the North American culture of bodychecking are as important as adjustments to the age at which we allow it to be part of the game.

Therien said he was not surprised there were howls when the new age restrictions were introduced this past summer. Traditionalists, Therien noted, have always opposed safety measures when they are first introduced. "I can remember when we first started to make kids wear helmets and then face guards. There was howling then, too."

However, hockey has reached the point where there are no more advances in equipment to make players safer, he said. The next great challenge will be to re-invent the whole philosophy of Canada’s national sport so that bodychecking, when it is allowed, is stripped of gratuitous, reckless hits.

Coaches and parents — many fuelled by desires to see their children play at the highest levels of the game — have encouraged players to look for dangerous head-on collisions, while also encouraging players to "finish the check" late and loud to intimidate opponents, Therien said. This style of play produces more than its fair share of injuries, he added.

"What we really need to talk about is cultural change," said Therien, himself a former Ontario junior and U.S. collegiate player. "We want the game to be exciting and big hits are certainly exciting.

"But we’ve allowed our need for excitement to translate into a level of competition that has produced a lot of violence. We can keep hitting in the game, but only if we take steps to control it. Otherwise, we’re going to screw this game."

Last season, the Monarchs Bantam 2 AAA team (for 13-year-old players) found itself in the final game of a top-level hockey tournament in Minneapolis. Their opponents were also from Winnipeg — the AAA Hawks.

Late in the game, with the Monarchs ahead, a Hawks defenceman delivered a blind-side check to a Monarchs forward who, at the time, did not have possession of the puck. The Hawks player was penalized; the player who was hit suffered a concussion and missed eight games back in Winnipeg.

Josh Gardner says he has to be careful around smaller guys.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Josh Gardner says he has to be careful around smaller guys. "They go down easy and you'll get called every time," he says.

It didn’t take long after the incident for Don McIntosh, the president of Hockey Winnipeg, to hear about what had happened. The Monarchs provided Hockey Winnipeg with a video of the incident and asked McIntosh to consider a suspension for the Hawks player.

Given the fact the tournament took place in another country, and that Hockey Winnipeg has a strict rule against reviewing video of on-ice incidents, McIntosh said he was unable to take any action.

However, in the days following the incident, the player who delivered the hit went on Facebook to brag about how he had "ragdolled" the Monarchs’ player. His post, immediately brought to the attention of the Monarchs, also claimed his coach had instructed him to go out and "get" the forward. "And I got him," the post stated.

This time, McIntosh did act. Hockey Winnipeg held a disciplinary hearing with the Hawks player and his parents. McIntosh said the player recanted his Facebook claim he was acting on his coaches’ instructions, and suggested he had exaggerated the entire incident to impress his friends. Nonetheless, Hockey Winnipeg suspended the player for three games. Not for the hit, but for his indiscretion on social media.

Most weeks, McIntosh receives video of some on-ice incident a parent or a team wants reviewed. In most of those incidents, the players involved are playing at the AA or AAA level, the highest level of hockey prior to the junior leagues. While it is true top-tier hockey at any age is not an activity for the weak of heart, McIntosh said he has become concerned about the level of violence and the injuries in the game.

"There’s a lot of pressure on these kids, pressure to win, to play hard," McIntosh said. "After a while, it’s no longer enough just to take a guy out of the play. You have to put your guy through the boards. There are a lot of people who will disagree with me about that, but it’s clear we’ve allowed things to get a bit out of control."

One need to only look at AAA hockey to see how players are encouraged to play harder, and more recklessly, as they rise up the system.

Despite better efforts by the hockey fraternity to limit its impact, hockey is a constant pressure in the lives of players as young as 13, the first year of AAA hockey eligibility in Canada.

Even at that tender age, most parents and players are focused on the annual May bantam draft, where top-flight junior teams from the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft the most talented 15-year-olds for their programs.

The 12A1 Forty Garry North Flyers get a pep talk from coach Mike Angers before their game against the 12A1 Dakota Lazers.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The 12A1 Forty Garry North Flyers get a pep talk from coach Mike Angers before their game against the 12A1 Dakota Lazers.

Ironically, the bantam draft was designed to ease pressure on younger teens by preventing intense scrutiny and scouting until players were 15 and on the verge of graduating from bantam hockey. Instead, the pressure has, by most accounts, only increased on parents and players keen to earn and retain spots on AAA rosters until their draft year. That has, many observers believe, translated into an escalation in on-ice violence.

Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, said there is definitely an edge to AAA hockey now that pushes players to the very edge of the rules when delivering bodychecks. "I call it ‘hitting for the hearing impaired,’ " Woods said. "The players are finishing their checks so hard, you can hear it all over the rink."

Woods said many of the bodychecks that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow 20 or 30 years ago are now suspect because of the medical data available on concussions. As a result, there has been movement among the provincial hockey bodies to control the more reckless methods.

"Our appetite for this kind of bodychecking is not what it once was," he said. "You’ll get a lot of people in the game who argue we still have to allow those big mid-ice hits and that a player with his head down needs to be punished. There’s always going to be some of that, but I think what you’re seeing now is that its going to be dialed down."

In some respects, hockey makes no attempt to hide the reality of the risks facing its most talented prospects. In most provinces, all AAA players 13 years old and up must do baseline concussion testing at the beginning of a season so in the event of an injury, physicians are able to more accurately diagnose changes in cognitive functions. There are those who think this should be a best practice for any child involved in any sport, but particularly for youth involved in the most competitive levels of hockey. Again, research has shown the risks at these levels are substantial.

A 2010 study that followed two junior-aged hockey teams during the 2009-10 season found 17 of the 67 players being tracked had suffered at least one concussion, with five of those players suffering a second concussion. That 25.3 per cent concussion rate was nearly seven times the rate reported in other similar studies of this age group.

This is where Hockey Canada’s two current top-of-mind concerns — the safety of the players and the number of players involved in the game — begin to collide. Although it is fine to argue all hockey has some element of risk, and the more elite levels have even more risk, the simple fact is an inability to control the ferocity of bodychecking, among other factors such as cost and time commitment, are limiting the size of the talent pool from which Hockey Canada draws its elite players.

Total hockey registration in Canada has stagnated in recent years, with approximately 500,000 boys and girls currently registered in hockey at age 17 and below. In many provinces, including Manitoba, the increase has been almost negligible over the past decade. Manitoba registered 29,402 hockey players in 2012-13, an increase of only 2,800 players in 10 years. The majority of that increase is due to increased enrolment in female hockey, which does not allow bodychecking.

No matter how you massage the numbers, there is concern in the highest levels that without significant changes to the cost and the culture of the game, hockey will ultimately become a third or fourth choice among Canadian youth behind soccer and basketball, which is now the fastest growing youth sport in the country.

To that end, Hockey Canada is initiating major changes to the very culture of the game. Next fall, new standards for coaches and officials will attempt to re-establish safe parameters for bodychecking, and a consistent approach to teaching and policing the game on ice.

"What we’re trying to do really is to re-emphasize a philosophy surrounding the bodycheck," said Corey McNabb, Hockey Canada’s senior manager for player development. "The main thing we need to drive home is the purpose of a bodycheck is to separate an opponent from the puck. It’s not to be used as a way to intimidate or injure. However, over the years, that’s exactly what it’s become. We need to reset that."

Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, calls bodychecking in AAA hockey

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, calls bodychecking in AAA hockey "hitting for the hearing impaired. The players are finishing their checks so hard, you can hear it all over the rink."

To be fair, Hockey Canada has emphasized this philosophy for many years, and it is a central focus of the current National Coaches Certification Program four-stage bodychecking progression model. This is a model coaches are supposed to use to introduce the very basics of body "contact" before the players reach an age when full bodychecking is allowed.

The model introduces concepts like angling, pinning and stick checking, all the while stressing all body contact must be conducted "within the rules of the game" and with a focus on mutual respect.

Although these new materials are not yet complete, it is likely they will de-emphasize riskier types of bodychecks. It is also possible new provisions will be added to the Hockey Canada rule book to give officials clear direction to enforce the new standards, McNabb said.

And for the first time ever, all coaches, including those at AA and AAA, will be required to re-certify on the new bodychecking standards, he said.

However, for these new standards to be successful in changing the culture of the game, several sacred concepts will have to be confronted. These include coming up with a clear definition of things like "finishing the check," a tactic that has been in the game a long time but one that does not appear anywhere in the Hockey Canada rule book.

Purists and hardcore fans know the competitive levels of hockey, up to and including the NHL, allow players to complete a bodycheck several seconds after a puck carrier has actually relinquished the puck. The higher the level of hockey, the later players are allowed to finish their checks.

However, the rule book clearly states once a player has lost control of the puck, he is no longer fair game. Over the years, however, we’ve come to understand there is some wiggle room.

McNabb said "finishing the check" is definitely a flash point in the debate over how to change the culture of checking. "It’s a grey area and definitely something that we have to deal with when we teach coaches how to teach checking," he said.

Another potential area of controversy surrounds the issue of the head-on collision. As long as we’ve had organized hockey, we have lionized those players who could find opponents with their heads down to deliver a crushing, head-on body check. In recent years, however, this kind of check has fallen out of favour in the NHL as it struggles to reduce the number of head injuries.

Josh Gardner (front) demonstrates with Sean Lett the ultimate self-protection from a hit from behind.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Josh Gardner (front) demonstrates with Sean Lett the ultimate self-protection from a hit from behind.

It has also been actively discouraged in Europe and the United States. In fact, USA Hockey has begun to actively encourage coaches to teach their players to deliver a hit while moving in the same direction as the player being checked. The argument in favour of this approach is not just to improve safety; many coaches argue the head-on collision is a bad tactical approach because it often leads to penalties and takes the player delivering the check out of the play.

"I think there are a lot of people out there with passion for the game who don’t necessarily understand the rationale for what we’re doing," McNabb said. "I really believe that regardless of the age bodychecking is introduced, the biggest issue is going to be the ability of the coaches to teach it properly."

McNabb said the next few years are going to be critical for the future of hockey. The demographics of Canada are changing, with more people immigrating to this country without any connection to the game. It is essential changes be made now to all aspects of the game so all families see a future for their kids in hockey.

"People turn on the sports networks, and all they see is fights and big hits and people being taken off the ice on stretchers," McNabb said. "It’s not long before they start to ask themselves, ‘why would I put my kid in this sport?’

"The real challenge is: how are we going to implement all the changes we need to keep people in the game longer, when there are a lot of people still pushing back? How long will it take? A generation is 10 years, and it may take that long before we see real change."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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