The subject of concussions in hockey has been a hot topic this winter, and a press release from parliament hill back in January pledged support through education aimed to “help reduce the rate and severity of concussions and brain injuries and improve return-to-play decision-making for children and youth playing team sports.”
According to the release, this support, announced by the Honourable Bal Gosal, Minister of State (Sport), on behalf of the Minister of Health, “will help reduce the rate and severity of concussions and brain injuries and improve return-to-play decision-making for children and youth playing team sports.”
“We want our children to be active, healthy and have fun while participating in team sports and physical activity.”
But we also want our children to be safe,” said Minister Gosal. “It is estimated that as many as 90 per cent of severe brain injuries can be prevented. That’s why we are investing in projects to help ensure the safety of our children and youth while being active.”
“That’s great,” said Oceanside Minor Hockey President Greg Sabo, “I mean that announcement’s fantastic but there’s no specific programs or funding that they’ve come up with, so we’re waiting to see what programs will be available. I’m very happy that they’re willing to support youth and teams … I’m looking forward to hearing more specifics on it.”
While the issue of concussions (and safety in general) continues to be the subject of much discussion, “it’s not something we keep tabs on numbers-wise,” said Sabo, “but I do know there’s been a few concussions (in OMHA) this year, and there’s a specific hockey Canada protocol that we follow in order to have a player return to play after an injury.
Much of that information, he said, “is only anecdotal, I only hear about it but if there is an injury; I generally get an e-mail from our safety coordinator.”
It’s been just over five months since body checking was banned in all levels of recreational hockey.
“I do think concussions are down,” Sabo said, pointing out that when hitting was eliminated from House (Rec) hockey last year, Hockey Canada also adopted a no-tolerance approach, wherein any head contact at all initiates a penalty.
“If you touch a player’s head in any way it’s an automatic two minute penalty, and with head contact there is no discretion. It’s an automatic penalty.
“I think its a fantastic idea,” said Sabo. “It makes the players aware they have to stay away from head contact, and because there’s no discretion the player knows if he touches the head, he gets a penalty.”
The severity of the penalty depends on the severity of the infraction.
“I’m really happy with the new non-hitting in House rules,” said Sabo.
Asked his take on the general consensus Sabo said, “everybody’s really happy. I had a few complaints at the beginning; there were concerns being raised that the kids wouldn’t be ready for checking if they advance to Rep, but our response is they are all required to take two checking clinics prior to playing in a hockey game, so we feel that’s adequate to get them ready.”
So far this year he said he knows of only instance this year where a local player was hurt.
“That was in Peewee rep … it was minor, it wasn’t even clear if he had a concussion, but he was off for a week … we always exercise on the side of caution … priority number one is the kids safety. Always,” he said.
The changes may not stop there, as there are also discussions underway about removing checking in Peewee Rep, the current entry level in this country into the competitive stream.
“What I’ve heard is that they’re found there’s a higher rate of concussions amongst the younger players,” said Sabo.
OMHA has about 400 registered players between the ages of five and 18 this season.
There are 13 volunteers on the local minor hockey executive, and Sabo makes the point, “since I’ve been on the executive the majority of the executive are there for the right reason; that the kids are having fun in a safe and supportive environment.”
Typically, he pointed out, injuries occur when the players are doing something they shouldn’t be.
THE NUMBERS GAME
A quick crunch of the numbers reveals that there are around 350 minor hockey games played out at Oceanside Place each year, which equates into, well, a lot of kids on the ice.
“When you consider there are 12 to 20 kids on a team, times that by two and multiply it by 350 … that’s a lot of opportunity for injury,” confirmed Sabo.
“My sense is it’s a very safe game. It’s a sport, and like any sport there’s the potential for injury, but the equipment is very good and the rules that are in place help make it safe.”
ON THE ICE and having a blast the day we were on the bench at Howie Meeker Arena was little Ethan Nordli.
“He loves to skate, he loves to play hockey,” Ethan’s dad Geoff confirmed as he fell down and get right back up, fell down and got right back up, again, and again, and again.
The father of three boys and a girl — his other three children already play minor hockey, and Ethan starts next year — Geoff played high level hockey back in the day, and said he’s all for the changes to the game.
“I tell them it’s all about having fun. I tell them I’d rather them play house hockey then Rep because the commitment is just too much.”
“I’m always pushing to make hockey more about having fun then pushing kids through to the higher levels,” agreed Sabo, who put it into perspective when pointed to a recent article he read that said a study started in Ontario in 1975 shows that of the 30,000 kids enrolled in minor hockey there, only 11 of them — or one in every 2,727 players — went on to play in the NHL.
“Hockey’s a great game,” Greg surmised off the cuff. “It’s the camaraderie, that’s what I really like about it. The social element — that’s the main purpose of it for me; they (the young players) develop socially, learn some work ethic, commitment, and team play … they’re learning life skills.”