Study weighs risks of bodychecking in youth hockey
Published Monday, June 20, 2011 7:48PM EDT
The results of a new study suggest that hockey players can benefit from learning to bodycheck at a younger age. But the researchers say players should weigh all the risks before signing up for full-contact play.
The question of when to introduce young players to the rigours of contact hockey has long been the subject of a heated debate. And it's certain to intensify with the findings of a research project published in the latest edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
According to the study, the age that young players start bodychecking has a negligible effect on the chance they will suffer an injury or concussion.
The researcher's findings are based on data culled from nearly 1,000 12- and 13-year old bantam league players in Alberta who had already been bodychecking for two years at the Peewee level, and another similarly sized sample of Quebec bantam players with no prior bodychecking experience.
Specifically, the study found 272 injuries and 51 concussions among its database of 995 Alberta players, while the 976 players in Quebec racked up 244 injuries and 49 concussions.
But the study's authors note that players who start bodychecking at a younger age are 33 per cent less likely to suffer long-lasting injuries as they progress through the sport's age divisions.
While those results would suggest an advantage to learning how to give and receive bodychecks at an earlier age, the authors caution against jumping to that conclusion.
Instead, they say this latest study must be considered together with the results of their earlier research, which found that players who start bodychecking at an earlier age are three times more likely to get hurt than their counterparts in non-contact leagues.
"These findings need to be interpreted in light of previous evidence of more than a threefold increased risk of concussion and all injury among players aged 11–12 years in a league where bodychecking is permitted," the study's principal researcher, University of Calgary sport epidemiologist Dr. Carolyn Emery wrote.
A growing body of research has linked between 45 and 85 per cent of hockey-related injuries to bodychecking, including a study published last year that found youngsters allowed to check their opponents were not only more than twice as likely to get injured, they were more likely to suffer concussions.
And as more evidence points to the potentially long-lasting effects of those injuries, hockey officials have been tightening body-contact rules at various levels of the game.
Hockey Canada has announced tough new zero-tolerance rules against hits to the head, for example, covering players at all levels from minor through junior and senior ranks.
And the largest provincial branch of the sport's organizing body has declared a ban on bodychecking amongst recreational players from the age of 6 all the way up to 21 years old.
When it announced the change, the Ontario Hockey Federation said the no-hitting rules would make room for players to improve their skating and stick-handling skills without having to worry about intentional hits from other players.
On its website, Hockey Canada says "checking skills are critical to the game," and should be learned in a progression from the most basic way to approach a hit, through stick checks and body contact before winding up with actual body checks.
In this latest study published Monday, the authors suggest all factors have to be weighed in deciding when is the right time to get young players learning how to hit and be hit.
"Policy regarding the age at which hockey players are introduced to bodychecking requires further consideration," the authors state.
"Consideration should be given also to the age at which a player is able to make an informed decision about playing under these conditions of increased risk, perhaps after they have finished a critical physical growth period that could be focused on skill development."
Researchers from the University of Calgary, Laval University, the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University and the Alberta Children's Hospital all participated in the study.