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Hockey Canada’s bodychecking ban: How early is too early for hitting?

Don Cherry poses in front of his old 1997 Yukon in March, 2013. Mr. Cherry believes Hockey Canada’s decision to ban bodychecking for peewee players will leave them ill-prepared for physical play at higher levels.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Brian Taylor, 54, has played hockey all his life, and readily admits that when he was a kid, he skated aggressively and collided with other players. But the kind of hitting the former peewee coach has recently witnessed on the ice has made him want to pull his son out of the game at times.

"I was worried sick some kid would get paralyzed. Hitting is about getting the guy off the puck, not drilling him into the boards," the Calgary father said.

Talk to his son Connor, however, and you get a different story. For the 13-year-old winger, who plays for the Lake Bonavista Breakers, "hitting is just part of the game."

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The debate in the hockey-passionate Taylor family is echoed across Canada as the country learns of Hockey Canada's decision Saturday to ban bodychecking for all peewee level players as of next season. In recent weeks, Alberta and Nova Scotia have excluded hitting between peewee players, usually aged 11 and 12, joining Quebec, a province with a long-standing ban on full body contact.

The decision to take the hitting out of the peewee game was opposed by the Saskatchewan Hockey Association at Hockey Canada's annual meeting in Charlottetown. "It is ingrained in our hockey culture that checking is a skill that should be taught and introduced as early as possible, to help players as they grow up," said the association's general manager, Kelly McClintock.

And even in Quebec, where Hockey Québec banned bodychecking more than 20 years ago, the issue is still unsettled. "It is obvious the Quebec players are not ready when they face teams from the United States and Europe. Banning bodychecking at that age just increases the number of injuries when they reach the bantam level," said Patrick Dom, general manager of the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament. The event, which brought 112 teams and 2,200 players to Quebec City for its 54th edition in February, is the biggest peewee hockey tournament in the world.

CBC commentator Don Cherry slammed the ban, saying Hockey Canada will come to regret its "politically correct" decision. "You cannot have kids that are not taught how to receive hits. This will only make it harder on them and create, in my estimate, more injuries." Mr. Cherry said he watches minor-league games three times a week with his son Tim, an Ontario Hockey League scout.

TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie used to share that view. His youngest son was introduced to body contact at 10 through a pilot program, while his eldest son only started bodychecking at 12, according to the rules that prevailed at the time. "In my experience and in my heart, I long felt the younger the better," he said.

But the author of Hockey Dad: True Confessions from a (Crazy?) Hockey Parent changed his mind when scientific research highlighted the lasting consequences of concussions. "Knowing what we know today about head traumas, I don't know how anybody can justify putting a 10- or an 11-year-old in harm's way."

A five-year University of Calgary study concluded Alberta peewee players were three times more likely to get injured and four times more likely to suffer a concussion than peewees from Quebec. The study also showed that, while concussion symptoms were likely to go away in 10 days for 80 per cent of the injured players, others suffered for weeks and even years after being hit.

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Kids are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, Mr. McKenzie said. And the result can be seen on the ice rinks on any given day.

"There is more hitting today at every level than there has ever been," said former NHLer Ray Ferraro, who thinks Hockey Canada made the right call. However, Mr. Ferraro, whose son Landon plays for the American Hockey League, believes coaches should prepare young players to receive and give proper hits. "Hitting is a part of the game, it won't go away," he said.

But not all hockey parents agree with Mr. Ferraro. Randy Lewis is the father of one 15-year-old boy who plays midget, and two girls aged 12 and 10 who play in mixed peewee and atom teams. For the Calgary resident, taking hitting out of hockey is akin to creating a different sport.

"This is a major mistake," he said.

Torontonian Kim Taylor agrees. Her son Matthew, a peewee player whose height has gotten him into trouble when he collided with smaller players, got suspended three times in the past season. "It is going to be tough for them to go back [to no bodychecks]," she said. Ms. Taylor says she never feared for her 12-year-old son's safety because the referees take their jobs seriously.

Nonetheless, she had his brain tested to compare results should he suffer a concussion. "Just in case, I will have my own info," she said.

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