Fears over concussions at hockey's highest level are trickling down more and more to minor hockey these days, and several high-profile Canadian associations have begun to take action as a result.
This season, players as young as 10 and in many parts of the country, will now go through the same concussion testing as NHL players in the hopes of preventing future head injuries.
John Chehade, director of sales and marketing for the Clinical Medicine Research Group, said Monday that his company is expected to provide the baseline tests to as many as 17,000 youngsters in five provinces this season.
It's a movement he believes has come at least partly in response to Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby's eight-month battle with postconcussion syndrome.
"With hockey, we have seen a big increase in the number of associations and parents calling in about our programs, particularly our baseline testing," Chehade said. "After Sidney Crosby did his press conference [last week] our phones were ringing off the hook."
Several associations, including the Minor Oaks Hockey Association in Oakville, Ont., and the Belleville Minor Hockey Association in Belleville, Ont., have even made the $25 tests mandatory, a move that has drawn praise from coaches and parents alike.
"I think it's a great idea," said Brian Newton, a former minor hockey coach in Cole Harbour, N.S., who used to instruct a young Crosby. "I know some of these kids are suffering minor concussions."
Newton added that he believes the testing should be part of a broader approach that includes rethinking when to introduce hitting and using softer shoulder and elbow pads.
"I know there's the cost and expense of it," Newton said of the testing. "It may be only some associations that can do it."
So far, however, associations report the backlash against the extra cost in an already expensive sport has been minimal.
"I've been pushing our board to get our players tested for a long time, and I'm so glad it's finally happening here," said Vicki Smith, board secretary of the Belleville association, which will test all of its rep teams for kids over 10 for the first time this season. "We haven't had any push-back from parents."
Hockey Alberta, which held a Concussion Summit in June, has considered baseline testing, although new rules are not on the way.
"It is something that has been discussed informally, but it is definitely not mandated in Alberta," said Mike Dennis, manager of marketing and communications for Hockey Alberta. "Right now, it is up to local associations and leagues. There could be an association or league out there that is doing this right now … but they don't have to be telling us about it."
CMRG's baseline test, which relies on the same standards as those currently in use by the NHL and CFL, is conducted online and takes about 25 minutes to complete.
It then provides a detailed clinical report that can later be used by doctors as a comparison point when trying to assess if a player has recovered from a concussion.
The testing is designed to ensure that athletes don't return to action too soon.
"A lot of the times you see multiple-case concussions and that's what you're trying to avoid," Chehade said. "We know that 80 per cent of concussion cases resolve in seven to 10 days, but how do you know who's in that 80-per-cent category or who's in that 20-per-cent category like Sidney Crosby?
"You just don't know unless you have some sort of objective measurable data."
One Hockey Canada executive said Monday that he supports the initiative.
"With all the awareness around concussions and the prevention, I think a lot of minor hockey associations have certainly locally gone and looked at baseline testing," said Todd Jackson, Hockey Canada's senior manager of member services. "From our standpoint, it's just another step in the overall return to play process. They're taking some steps to make sure their kids are safe."
With reports from Oliver Moore in Halifax, Carrie Tait in Calgary and The Canadian Press