For many young Canadians, the dropping temperatures mark the exciting beginning of a long-awaited and well-loved time of the year: hockey season!
It’s a time of the year parents can appreciate too – that is, until the puck drops and suddenly, the local arena feels like the Stanley Cup finals with every player ready to risk life and limb to score one for their team.
So how safe is youth hockey, really? Hearing stories of young and professional hockey players suffering devastating serious injuries can feel all too real, because, well, it is.
Concussions Can Be Catastrophic
While your young Sidney Crosby or Hayley Wickenheiser might try to brush any safety concerns aside, worried parents should have the right to feel apprehensive.
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Research, the frequency of brain injuries acquired from ice hockey is nearly double that of other sports like football, rugby, cycling, skiing, and snowboarding.
While most brain injuries – namely concussions – are mild and allow for full recovery, they can still pose as serious health risks, especially with young, developing brains.
Sustaining a concussion not only puts children at a higher risk of having another, but the effects of repeated injuries can multiply over the years.
Those who have acquired a concussion are also at risk for Post-Concussion Syndrome, which occurs when concussion symptoms continue to persist after the expected recovery period of one to two weeks.
A study of retired professional athletes also linked repeated concussions with developing depression and a poor quality of life. This isn't to scare you away from the sport, but as hockey has evolved over the years, the education around player safety has evolved with it.
How bodychecking has changed
In hockey, bodychecking - the slamming of an opponent in attempt to force them off the puck - was cited as being the most common cause of player trauma, accounting for 86 per cent of injuries among players aged 9 to 15.
In 2013, Hockey Canada banned bodychecking for players under the age of 13, and the results spoke for themselves.
Incidences of injuries fell by half and concussion rates were reduced by almost two thirds.
Since then, the organization has reserved the introduction of bodychecking to players in the Bantam level – around the age of 13 and 14 – through a four-step development program.
However, even with bodychecking eliminated, the high-energy contact nature of the game still leaves plenty of chances for a young brain to be exposed to trauma.
What you can do if you're starting out
- A properly-fitted CSA certified helmet is a good start that can protect against injuries such as skull fractures. Equipment proven to reduce the risk of concussions has yet to be developed.
- This makes it crucial to talk to your young athlete about fair play, non-violence, the importance of brain health, and respecting the game’s rules.
- Be aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion – sometimes, they can be easy to miss, especially if another injury is sustained at the same time.
- Educate yourself and your child on what steps need to be taken after a concussion is suspected.
- Follow the golden rule: When in doubt, sit out. If you or your child feels unsure whether or not they have sustained a concussion or if they have recovered fully from one, hold off from re-joining the game.
The Ontario Minor Hockey Association has also adopted the Safety Towards Other Players (STOP) Program: a red stop sign decal or patch attached to the back of a player’s helmet or jersey that reminds other player to not bodycheck, especially from behind.
If your child’s league doesn’t already incorporate the program within their team, talk with the coach and start the discussion.