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Learning to embrace the evolution of hockey's rules

Hey, c'mon now, it's obvious.

Approximately 99 per cent of those Calgary peewee hockey players will play 99 per cent of their hockey without bodychecking, presuming they continue into their 60s and 70s as the rec players they are destined to be. So why pretend it's the NHL when it's not and never will be?

Wait, though. What are these peewee teams supposed to do when they travel to a weekend tournament in, say, Saskatoon – learn how to give and take a hard check in the warm-up?

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Okay, then what are they supposed to do if they head in the other direction and play a team from, say, Vancouver, where bodychecking in peewee has already been banned – unlearn their contact game in the warm-up?

And what of late bloomers? Hockey has them, believe it or not. Are they supposed to learn bodychecking in their basement and driveway just in case they can later make a competitive team?

That's ludicrous. There are studies that show that 11-and 12-year-old hockey players knocking the stuffing out of each other are four times more at risk for concussion than if they're not smashing into each other. Given what little we know about the lasting effects of shots to the head, surely common sense dictates you don't do it.

And on and on it goes, the endless debating of the national game, from peewee and below all the way to the NHL.

In the end, no matter what the result – in Calgary they voted not to ban bodychecking at peewee – it comes down to a battle between those who call for change and those who rigidly oppose any and all change, as if hockey is never to be tampered with for fear its essence will be lost.

The fact of the matter is that hockey is forever changing, whether by rules or fashion. Just compare this spring's playoffs to last year's. There were no new rules, just new strategies, and, consequently, two wildly divergent styles of play.

Earlier this month, respected hockey historian Paul Kitchen, once a pretty good player in his own right, wrote a piece for the Ottawa Citizen that was a welcome reminder that Canada's national sport is forever being reinvented.

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Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick – Stanley Cup champion and MVP of the 2012 playoffs, might like to know that in 1886, when the first hockey league was formed, the rules stated that: "The goal keeper must not, during the play, lie, kneel or sit up on the ice, but must maintain a standing position."

Kitchen also pointed out that in the game's first instructional manual, it was said that the goaltender "should never rely upon his assistants to stop any shot."

Just try to imagine – if you dare – the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs if such thinking were still in force.

A scan through the "major rule changes" in the game – most of them initiated at the NHL level – can leave the average fan reeling. They changed from two 30-minute periods to three 20-minute periods. They dropped the sixth skater – known as the rover a century before Erik Karlsson brought it back in Ottawa – and went with five (some now argue in favour of dropping another and going with four skaters aside).

Penalties were three minutes long and no substitutes allowed for the full three. They came up with delayed penalties. They blew the whistle if they thought any one player was "ragging" the puck – an incomprehensible thought in today's era of the 22-second shift.

They changed the bluelines, changed them again, and may still change them yet again. They fastened the goalposts to the ice and then unfastened them to the ice.

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They brought in the forward pass, the single most dramatic change the game has known.

They put in the red line, took out the red line, and there are many today who will argue they should put it back again.

Decades into the game, they came up with an offside rule, later changed it to delayed offside, later changed it to automatic offside, later went back to delayed offside.

They came up with clearly defined rules for icing, yet today no one in the entire hockey world can say for sure what is icing and what is not.

Goaltenders were once considered fair game outside their crease but protected inside; now they are protected (sometimes) outside and considered fair game inside.

Home teams wore white, visiting teams dark, then visiting teams dark, home white.

They went from no body contact on faceoffs to nothing but body contact in faceoffs. They came up with the penalty shot. They had tie games that ended, then tied games that went into overtime, then tied games that went to shootout.

It would require the rest of this newspaper to detail all the changes made to a simple penalty call, to the number of players on the roster, even to the number of officials on the ice.

Suffice to say, change has never been something to be feared and avoided in hockey.

It is, rather, the constant.

That is not to say every proposal should be embraced – many of us, in fact, don't know what to think about the peewee bodychecking debate – but it is to say that many proposals deserve consideration.

And any that improve the game on the ice, whether in terms of skill or safety, deserve more than that.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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