The latest on youth hockey and concussion. PK
With Focus on Youth Safety, a Sport Considers Changes
By JEFF Z. KLEIN
Published: October 17, 2010
From the N.H.L.’s top goalie to the parent of a 12-year-old who sustained head and spinal concussions from a body check, calls are proliferating for changes to the culture of a sport that many see as too accepting of reckless body contact and serious injury.
The movement for change in hockey comes before a medical conference on Tuesday at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where representatives from the N.H.L. down to youth leagues will meet to discuss recommendations aimed to reduce the occurrence of concussions and other serious injuries, primarily in youth hockey.
Prompted by statistics indicating a high rate of serious injury among players ages 11 to 14, the measures are expected to include pushing back the age at which body checking is introduced in the United States and some Canadian provinces to 13 from 11.
Another measure would encourage the establishment of nonchecking recreational leagues for youth players. Such leagues are virtually nonexistent in areas of the United States where hockey is popular.
Among the recent findings from medical studies to be presented at the Mayo Clinic conference is this statistic from Alberta, where body checking is allowed for 11- and 12-year-olds: among the 9,000 players of that age in the province, an estimated 700 concussions occur each season.
The findings come from a study conducted by Dr. Carolyn Emery of the University of Calgary of 2,000 11- and 12-year-olds in Alberta and Quebec. It showed that Alberta players sustained four times as many concussions as the Quebec players and three times as many serious injuries, those that sidelined a player for a week or more. Quebec does not allow body checking until 13. It further found that if body checking in Alberta were pushed back to age 13, the annual number of serious injuries among 11- and 12-year-olds there would fall by an estimated 1,000, and concussions would fall by an estimated 400.
“Why are we insisting that our boys play the game in a way that we ourselves as adults would not, because we don’t want to get hurt?” said Dan Pinti, a Buffalo parent whose son, Zach, sustained head and spinal concussions after being checked into the boards as a 12-year-old four years ago. Pinti called the play “a perfectly reasonable, legal, bang-bang play.”
Pinti said his son missed almost a week of school and the rest of the hockey season. The next season, when the Pintis could not find a nonchecking youth league in western New York, Zach gave up the sport.
“You can’t play recreational, noncontact hockey in the Buffalo area until you’re 18,” said Stephen Sementilli, a USA Hockey-certified coach in the city. Jeff Hughes, another Buffalo-area coach who has been involved in efforts to establish noncontact house leagues, said they had been voted down because of a shortage of available ice and because of a belief that delivering and receiving hits at a young age builds character and makes for better hockey players.
Dr. Michael J. Stuart, an organizer of the two-day conference at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, said that the meeting was the latest in a series of similar conferences in North America and Europe prompted by a steady rise in reported concussions in hockey in the last decade.
“The whole sportsmanship and mutual respect thing is in every facet of the game,” said Stuart, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Mayo and the chief medical officer for USA Hockey. Stuart supports a ban on body checking until 13, when players are more physically mature, have been taught better balance and body control and, presumably, are inculcated with the principles of fair play.
“We need to continue to emphasize sportsmanship and mutual respect, to not take advantage of a vulnerable opponent, to not throw a check at the expense of the health and safety of an opponent or yourself,” he said.
The Mayo conference, which will be attended by officials from USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, the N.H.L., the International Ice Hockey Federation and equipment manufacturers, comes at a time when the N.F.L. is also studying the severity of concussions and how to best prevent them.
The N.H.L.’s traditional culture of hard, injurious hitting versus changing notions of fair play was in the spotlight last week after the Buffalo Sabres’ Jason Pominville sustained a concussion when the Chicago Blackhawks’ Niklas Hjalmarsson sent him into the boards with an illegal check from behind. The N.H.L. suspended Hjalmarsson for two games.
After the game, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, the Vezina Trophy winner last season as the N.H.L.’s top goalie, said, “That’s what we have to get away from in hockey right now, is the culture of ‘I was trying to make a play; therefore it’s not my fault.’ ”
Miller, who is a member of the N.H.L. rules committee, added: “No matter if it’s unintentional, we have to change the culture of it if we’re ever going to change the situations we’re seeing, where guys on the ice are bleeding and missing time with concussions. It’s completely an unnecessary play.”
This season the N.H.L., responding to pressure from the players union, passed rules — including banning blindside checks to the head — intended to reduce the number of head injuries.
This week, reducing head injuries in the game will be the focus for all levels of the game. Among the findings to be presented at the Mayo conference, all from academic studies over the past three years:
¶Concussions account for 18 percent of all hockey injuries.
¶Women’s hockey has the highest rate of concussions among N.C.A.A. sports, despite not allowing body checking.
¶The rate of reported concussions for youth players (23.15 per 1,000 player game hours) is only slightly lower than that for N.H.L. players (29.59).
Zach Pinti, the Buffalo player who quit hockey, is now 16 and playing lacrosse.
“It’s a good deal safer than hockey but still a risky sport, so I think it’s proof that I’m not an overprotective parent,” his father, Dan Pinti, said, adding: “The thing that was so difficult in hockey was the attitude among so many people. They just weren’t taking seriously all the statistical research and medical evidence that showed there might be something wrong with 12-year-old kids playing like it was the N.H.L.”