Canadians are open to blowing the whistle on bodychecking in minor hockey.
A new survey conducted on behalf of the Rick Hansen Institute says that four out of five Canadian adults consider the national game an excellent activity for children, but:
87 per cent feel that hockey carries a "significant risk" of head, neck and brain injury, higher than football (82 per cent), skiing/snowboarding (74 per cent) or soccer (28 per cent).
88 per cent – including 75 per cent of hockey parents and 86 per cent of those who consider themselves fans – would support a national policy that eliminated bodychecking at the peewee level (11 and 12).
82 per cent – including 62 per cent of the parents and 79 per cent of fans – would support such a ban at the bantam level (13 and 14).
67 per cent of hockey parents know someone who has suffered a concussion or serious head, neck, back or brain injury while playing hockey, as opposed to 32 per cent aware of such an injury from football, 16 per cent from soccer and 9 per cent from mixed martial arts.
"That is an amazing number," Dr. Charles Tator, founder of ThinkFirst Canada and project director of the Canadian Sports Concussion Project at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, says of the 67-per-cent statistic.
Tator, one of the world's leading experts on concussion, points out that the number reflects the popularity of the winter game, but also the growing national conversation on safety in hockey.
"It reflects what I hear in my own environment from parents who are very concerned about the concussion issue in hockey," Tator says. "It indicates we've done a pretty good job of making people aware that there is a problem with concussions in many sports, not just hockey."
The institute's survey was conducted online by Angus Reid Public Opinion between Feb. 22 and 26. The survey involved 2,017 Canadian adults who are Angus Reid Forum panelists and was broken down into three samples: 1,013 randomly selected adults, 502 parents of children playing on a hockey team, and 502 adults who consider themselves fans of the game. According to the pollster, the margin of error in such a survey would be plus or minus 3.1 per cent from the sample of Canadian adults, and plus or minus 4.5 per cent for each of the two smaller groupings.
Bill Barrable, chief executive officer of the Rick Hansen Institute, says the institute commissioned the survey "because spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries never completely heal. They are damage which has permanent long-term consequences and are a very significant public health and youth safety issue in this country."
The Canadian Paediatric Society and other groups have recommended that bodychecking in all hockey leagues be delayed until 15.
Support for this cutoff was surprising in that 77 per cent of Canadians – including 67 per cent of hockey parents and 79 per cent of hockey fans – would support such a change. Opposition to such a proposal was relatively low, with 31 per cent of hockey parents against such a rule, and 19 per cent of fans opposing it.
Asked what effect the elimination of bodychecking under 15 would have on the game itself, 62 per cent of adults thought "better off" while 50 per cent of hockey parents felt the same. Only 8 per cent of adults thought the game would be "worse off," while 21 per cent of hockey parents thought it would be bad for the game.
The highest level of support occurred in British Columbia (86 per cent) and lowest was found in Alberta (73 per cent). Intriguingly, these are the two provinces most recently involved in a debate over taking body contact out of peewee hockey.
There is no bodychecking allowed at the peewee level in Quebec or in the United States. Studies have found the rate of concussions at this level of play is significantly reduced if full body contact is not allowed.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, the Victoria-based president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, says there is no suggestion that children be kept out of hockey.
"We want to encourage," he says. "The Canadian Paediatric Society has come out about the necessity of combatting the obesity epidemic, and hockey is an amazing sport where you not only develop skill sets and exercise, but it's something that likely will stay with you. Just look at the popularity of old-timer hockey leagues."
However, he adds, the game needs to be made safer for those at such a vulnerable age: "The concern about concussion is that not only can you get concussed out of the game, you can get concussed out of life."
Tator adds: "My personal view is that the scientific evidence is mounting that the young brain is more vulnerable to concussion than the older brain. The evidence is now pointing to the adolescent brain as being most vulnerable. It used to be thought that the infant brain or the toddler brain was most susceptible. But now it would seem that the older group, the adolescent brain, is the more vulnerable age."
Tator says it is known that ages 13 to 15 are a "tender brain age, and it makes sense to be concerned for that age group."
Stanwick says: "Brain reaches maximum size at age 12, then starts pruning and focusing on areas of special development. It's an amazing time where there's unbelievable elasticity in the brain."
He believes this is "a time when rules are really needed. The worst thing you can do is disrupt that process with a concussion."
His group would favour the elimination of bodychecking at all levels of house league and non-elite hockey. If these youngsters are going to continue playing for life – something the Paediatric Society encourages – it will be in non-contact leagues anyway.
In supporting the ban proposed by the society, Barrable, CEO of the Rick Hansen Institute, says such a move could "save Canada's health-care system millions of dollars in treatment and rehab care."
"We wouldn't drive our car into a wall at 25 kilometres an hour because it would cause considerable damage," he says. "Why would we continue to support rules which have our children crashing into a wall at the same speed when we know they can often suffer long-term damage?"
Such a rule change, if deemed necessary, could come about in two ways, according to Paul Carson, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey development. The Hockey Canada board of directors could vote on a motion received from the annual general meeting – as happened when new rules on head contact came in and the organization adopted its "zero tolerance" policy on head shots. The branches also have autonomy to set their own regulations, as happened with Quebec.
Hockey Canada is aware of the controversy concerning bodychecking and, so far, has left it to the branches to decide for themselves.
One of the more curious findings in the poll is that 7 per cent of those hockey parents surveyed believe their child has the potential to play professional hockey.
"One out of 3,000 kids makes it," Stanwick says.
Other intriguing findings: have children play with their specific year group rather than in two-year spans where, at the peewee and bantam levels, vast differences in growth are found. Support for such a change includes 71 per cent of Canadians, 66 per cent of hockey parents and 71 per cent of fans, while 29 per cent of parents would oppose such a change and 4 per cent are not sure.
"It's an important issue," Tator says. "One kid being up to the waist of the other and yet they're only a year-and-a-half apart. You would minimize the size, height and weight discrepancies if you limited the categories to one year. If you've got the numbers, you might as well."
There is also support for a wider ice surface than the regulation NHL rink of 200 feet by 85 feet. Hockey parents are particularly keen on this suggestion, with 74 per cent in favour and only 8 per cent opposed. The same number of fans would also favour the larger ice surface.
Broken down further, 46 per cent of parents would prefer the Olympic ice surface (15 feet wider), 16 per cent widening it by 10 feet and 12 per cent in support of a rink five feet wider.
"We know there are fewer collisions and fewer concussions when international hockey rinks are in play," Tator says.
In Stanwick's opinion, the elimination of bodychecking at the lower levels would maintain what the game is supposed to be about in the first place: fun.
"It's still going to be a rough and tumble sport," he says. "But it isn't a blood sport or mixed martial arts."