When you referee minor hockey for 11 years, you see some pretty crazy things.
I remember a tyke coach (tyke!) putting one foot up on the boards and shouting some mighty fine curse words at my partner and I, as the arena fell silent.
I remember a father of a novice player in a holiday tournament going off on me for having the audacity to call a tripping penalty, even though the coach of the team commented on how obvious it was. I wished the dad a Merry Christmas as I left the arena after the game.
And I remember some awfully big hitters in peewee and bantam – especially at the house league level – who didn’t know how to properly throw a hit at all. But they sure enjoyed crunching their opponents.
Hockey is an inherently dangerous game. From flying pieces of frozen rubber, to high-speed collisions intentional or not, there are a lot of ways to injure yourself on the ice even without body checking.
But with hitting, bad coaching – either by the coach of the team or by a misguided parent – can make these dangers much worse at the minor hockey level.
What's the solution?
A Mayo Clinic study recently released reviewed the types and severity of injuries sustained by youth hockey players. Most injuries happened to boys and older children, which is what you could expect since body checking and physical play becomes the norm as kids age. The surprise statistic was that 20 percent of injuries occurred with girls, which was higher than previously recorded.
Here’s an excerpt from the report:
“The study reviewed patients over a 16-year period who were evaluated at a pediatric trauma center after sustaining injury while participating in ice hockey. Fractures and head injuries were the most common, with differences based on age and gender. For example, older boys were more likely to present with an extremity injury, while girls of all ages and younger children were more likely to present with concussion symptoms. Overall, the number of life-threatening injuries was small.”
Naturally, this kind of discussion will lead to a debate on the place of body checking in the minor hockey game. There’s no doubt the majority of injuries to minor hockey players come as the result of a body check and studies have shown that introducing checking at a younger age would lead to a spike in player injuries at those levels. This is to be expected since body checking adds another layer of danger to the game, whether you support it or not. That younger players are also more susceptible to concussions should eliminate any expectation that body checking will ever be introduced at a younger age again. In fact, we’re moving the other way, with USA and Canadian Hockey both introducing hitting later than ever now.
Does body checking belong in the minor hockey game? I believe so - and not just at the highest levels (A, AA, AAA) – as long as there is always a viable option for players to join a non-hitting league. Perhaps that means hitting should be banned from house league at every level to ensure a safer option, if you want one.
Why do I think it belongs? It’s incredibly fun, it adds a higher competitive dynamic and, within hockey, it’s the end of a growing up process. It’s one of many skills in the game, but it becomes a weapon when it’s not taught properly. And that's the slippery slope we find ourselves on.
Another study that came to our attention Wednesday is from York University, titled: “I like that you can hit a guy and not really get in trouble”: Young ice hockey players’ experiences with body checking. And here is an excerpt from the article:
It also revealed a disconnect. Although the young hockey players found it exhilarating to whack their opponents, when a player was seriously injured as a result, many felt true remorse. It’s as if the hitting and causing injury isn’t connecting in their brains.
“When asked about the introduction of bodychecking, the first thing they talked about was the increase in injuries. They were scared, shocked and upset by these injuries. It was fascinating how they expressed such empathy for injured players – crying seeing a kid taken off on a stretcher – then turned around immediately to talk about how much they enjoy hitting people,” says Fraser-Thomas.
But it’s more than just the young players not connecting the dots; their coaches and parents aren’t either, says Fraser-Thomas. “The control and intimidation, much of that message is coming from the parents.” They are advocating and coaching the kids to “hit” the other players. They are advised to use their body size, if they are physically bigger, to their advantage. And at that age, there is a significant difference of body sizes.
And that’s the overarching problem here: lack of education and understanding on the part of coaches, parents and, by extension, players. Hitting is becoming less and less about regaining puck control (which is ironic in the age of advanced stats and puck possession) and more about intimidation, especially at the minor hockey level. It’s a behavior that’s not only accepted, but encouraged in a hyper-competitive environment and it's exactly the wrong way to teach the game. When you instruct a young kid how to stop on skates, do you show him how to snow the goalie, too? No - you drive home the fundamentals.
How many coaches of, say, ‘C’ level teams would bench their best player for a dumb, overly-aggressive hit? After all, the goal of coaches, especially at lower levels, should be to improve the people on the team and encourage them to play hard and competitive, but fair and respectful at the same time. In many places, winning trumps everything else and an intimidation culture festers. This is a disgrace and misses the point of what minor hockey is for.
When you think back to your minor hockey days now, do you recall the time you scared the hell out of Player A, or the times you had with your friends, realizing the lessons you learned and how much you grew up within your organization? Put me in the second camp.
The good news is that minor hockey has been faced with dangerous issues before that it's somewhat successfully tackled through education. Hitting from behind used to be a major problem and a focal point at OMHA referee re-certification programs - those lessons got results. Hits to the head became a major issue, so a rule against it was added to the book and driven home at referee and coach programs. It's not perfect today, but it's better understood and created a new norm.
The bad news is that body checking is "part of the game" and that differentiates it from the two examples above. There's no obvious course of action to reduce injuries related to hitting, aside from upping the age, or avoiding it altogether.
There’s an epidemic in minor hockey, but it isn’t due primarily to body checking itself. And, in fact, we’ve known about this problem for years: There’s a serious issue with over-the-top competitiveness and coached intimidation, which should be put into greater focus. How do we solve it: Mandatory coaching programs? Mandatory lessons for parents? Mandatory classes for players?
Or is the only solution to decline the risk of injury (not remove, but decline) the abolition of hitting from minor hockey altogether?
As much a travesty as that would be, if we're never able to figure out and buy into properly leading and teaching youth players, perhaps that’s the only option we’ll have left. What a shame.
Consider that next time Little Johnny runs his competitor into the boards from behind or with a high hit. What will the reaction of his coach and parents be? Complain to the ref and give the player a pat on the back, or sit him down and, you know, teach him a lesson in humility.
This isn't the NHL - it's just minor hockey.