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How we can team up to save Canada’s game and put the fun back in hockey

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Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion recently reached out to me after The Globe published a story on my recent research looking at the cost of injuries in the NHL. We recently decided to meet at City Hall for a discussion about the health of hockey and its players.

In my career as a neurosurgeon, I continuously see the lasting impact of head injuries on individual patients and their families. Whenever I see "big hits" glorified on television, I wonder how much those cheering really think about what is happening to the players' brain and potentially his future.

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Sitting with McCallion, we had a fruitful discussion about some of the broader social impact that hockey violence has on municipalities and communities such as Mississauga.

She started with a sharp and to-the-point attitude: "So doctor, I am so glad that you have been researching the topic of sports-related injuries. I know your research and I want to find solutions to the problems. We have certainly felt the impact of the NHL here in our city."

I told her it all boils down to one thing: We have to put fun back in to the game. Her eyes lit up and she agreed with the enthusiasm of a teenager.

I went on … "If you ask a seven-year-old why he plays hockey, he'll tell you, 'Because it's fun!' But if you ask that boy the same question a few years later, he'll say, 'Because I want a scholarship' or that he wants to win. Fun is no longer a motivator for playing; it's not even part of the equation. There's no more joy in the game. That is the bottom line."

The passion for our "national sport" was especially evident during the Olympics. Now that Sochi spirit has wound down, all hockey talk revolves around the NHL playoffs. The mayor pointed out that in the Greater Toronto Area there's a stronger notion of "Leafs Nation" than there is an overall hockey pride, even in spite of the team's poor second half this season.

Registration for male hockey is dwindling because parents don't want to sign up their children and subject them to the risks they see every night on television. Nor do families want to face other factors such as costs, time commitment and travel. For more families and players, it just isn't fun any more.

The decline in male hockey registration over the past couple of years has had serious financial effects on the City of Mississauga, which is responsible for the maintenance of community arenas. Lower registration numbers also means a smaller pool of fans for regional teams such as the Ontario Hockey League's Mississauga Steelheads. The impact could also be applicable to other contact sports that take a "win-at-all-costs" attitude.

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To save the game, we agreed that citizens need to take violence out of the game and put the fun back in.

A few of the solutions we discussed:

  • Mayor’s medals for sportsmanship: She was far ahead of me – she has done this for seven years already.
  • More support for local community ice pads in city parks run by local parents.
  • Helmets and education before and with every school trip to city-owned rinks.
  • Instituting a “fair play rules league” – in which fair, clean play is incentivized by points given to teams for league standing.
  • Ensure non-body-checking hockey leagues have easy access to city facilities.
  • Bring in rules for leagues that play on city premises requiring a fair and democratic process for the regular renewal and representation of all governance committees of local sports clubs and teams, with the goal of disrupting the status quo and encouraging change.

Some of these ideas will be discussed by the citizen's committee struck by the mayor to deal with the renewal of sports and recreation in Mississauga. My discussion with McCallion was a stark reminder of the role politicians can play in society outside of developing legislation (I can see why she's Canada's longest-serving mayor). People with influence and positions of authority need to take it upon themselves to remove the risk of head injury and put the fun back in hockey.

Dr. Michael Cusimano is a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital, a researcher in the hospital's Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, and a professor of neurosurgery, education and public health at the University of Toronto.

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