After a summer's respite from arenas, I am back in a boys' hockey dressing room, blinking in the windowless murk.
The sounds and smells are familiar. The ripping of Velcro, the clattering of wooden sticks, the voices of preteen boys teasing and laughing, the aroma of stale sweat. On go the jock and shorts, the shin pads, the woolly socks, the bulky pants. Then the top half, by rote: elbow pads, shoulder pads, neck guard, jersey. Tug the skate laces tight, snap on the helmet.
Despite the worn-glove familiar atmosphere, there is a new feeling in the room. A mixture of nervous excitement and gut-dwelling dread: the anticipation of bodychecking. This year, at age 11, there's a new introduction to the game of minor competitive hockey. Bodychecking, defined as hitting an opponent to remove him from the puck. Hitting with elbows, hips, shoulders. Into the boards. Onto the ice.
The young players are excited by this. As a mom, I am terrified.
My husband defends the whole practice of hitting in hockey as "part of the game." And proponents justify the introduction at age 11 so that players learn to take and give hits properly before they are huge in size and weight.
My son is tiny for his age, weighing about 30 to 40 pounds less than several of his teammates and opponents. But his small stature is not the source of my fear. My biggest concern by far is accidental head injury. I am not a neurologist, and I know that there is still much we are learning as a society about concussions and head injuries. But there is mounting and compelling scientific evidence that hits to the head, whether small or big, cause permanent neurological damage. Permanent neurological damage.
The media in the past 12 months has only fed the fire of my dread: Sidney Crosby's condition since January after consecutive head shots; the tragic fates of NHL enforcers Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak, believed to be related to depression. Given last seasons' concussions in the NHL and the relentless media coverage, there has been growing public outcry for rules to be changed.
In minor hockey in Toronto, there is no bodychecking permitted at the house league level and it was recently banned at the select level. However, at my son's more competitive league's last AGM, the motion to ban bodychecking was denied.
Rationally, I know that direct hits to the head are not permitted in his league. And it's true that officials have tried to clamp down this year by increasing the penalty for contact with the helmet to up to a three-game suspension, dutifully enforced by the refs.
But as a parent, I also know that accidents happen. A shoulder is thrust, balance is lost and a head hits the boards or the ice. A penalty or suspension after the fact does not repair the damage caused by a head injury.
If hitting does not improve the speed or skill of the game, why is it necessary at all? If these kids are playing for the love of hockey, and not to enter the NHL (with very few exceptions), then why can't they play without contact?
To assuage my fears, I talked to other hockey moms whose sons are a year older and have played a year with bodychecking. While one former minor peewee player suffered a head injury because of contact, the majority were fine. Thankfully, the referees are attentive during play and diligent at handing out penalties.
I rationalize to myself: How is this risk different than backcountry skiing with only a helmet between one's skull and the trees? Or careering along our neighbourhood roads and down hills on a skateboard or rollerblades? Yet it just seems more intentional and violent.
I have watched as my eldest son advanced from tentative shuffling in learn-to-skate classes at age 4 to hockey 101 the next year – wearing full hockey equipment, which seemed a bit premature to me at the time. He played his first year of house league at age 6, select the following year and finally A-level right wing.
He hasn't looked back since first donning skates, and his younger brothers have followed suit. Between our three sons' games, practices and tournaments, we are in hockey arenas eight to 10 times a week. My husband has been a coach or played other staff roles almost every season.
Like so many young players with NHL stars in their eyes, my eldest son has gained confidence on the ice, tenacity in the corners and tremendous passion to win with his team.
He doesn't want to play in the local non-contact league or at the select level. It would mean leaving his friends with whom he has spent two full seasons developing their team into a successful one. There is no question that he wants to continue to play right where he is.
For this new chapter in his hockey career, we have invested in a higher-quality hockey helmet that contains gel packs instead of foam, and I metaphorically cross my gloved fingers through every game.
As a mom who has had significant control over the major milestones and the minutiae of his young life, I feel I have very little to no control over this. He barely even lets me into that dressing room any more.
I'll be going through this all over again when my younger sons reach age 11. Maybe by then, the league will have seen the light.
Sheryl Macdonald lives in Toronto.