Just a couple years ago USA Hockey banned body checking at the Pee Wee (12 and under) level, based in part on evidence that the risks of concussion and other serious injury resulting from body checking was simply unacceptable. The primary reason USA Hockey made the change, however, was to promote skill development at an age where kids are still developing, and because that development was being hindered by aggressive play intended to intimidate opponents and a winning-at-all-costs mentality. In making the rule change, USA Hockey assumed that all kids play because they want to develop their skills. I think that the majority simply want to play.
In his new book Concussions and Our Kids, Dr. Robert Cantu proposes extending the ban on bodychecking in hockey to age 14 and calls for officials in all sports to do a better of job of enforcing existing safety rules. "During games, officials are the only adults on the field or the ice," writes Cantu. "We depend on them to enforce the rules. ... A blind-side hit to the head in hockey is illegal and should be called a penalty. When players flout the rules, officials must call penalties. When they don't, youth players become emboldened and go after the next kid more recklessly than the last." Cantu proposes that game officials be held accountable for the calls they make and, importantly, for the calls they do not make. "Every referee will miss a call or two - that's normal and part of the game. When dangerous plays are overlooked repeatedly, there needs to be consequences. That official needs someone to tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, these are kids. Let's protect them.'"
For longtime hockey enthusiasts Cantu's proposal to extend the bodychecking ban to age 14 is unrealistic. Adoption, they believe, will ruin hockey. They wonder how the players will react when they are allowed to body check at 15-years-old, and predict that players will get injured at a far greater rate when they begin to compete against older, more experienced players. Such view persists despite evidence from several Canadian studies at the pee wee to bantam level that demonstrate otherwise.
As a longtime youth coach and player, I wonder if we are taking the wrong approach. When new rules are enacted, people simply find another way to achieve their goals. This is true in sports, business and in life. Then we make new rules. and the process of finding new ways to win by getting around the rules continues to create new problems. It is a vicious cycle.
Perhaps we need to take a different approach, take a hard look at youth athletics, and decide what it is we are trying to accomplish. In most sports - hockey included - the majority of kids are finished playing competitively by age 15. That alone should tell us that we need programs which are tailored to young people as they are developing into young adults who are not gong to play professional sports. The programs we offer need to be operated in a safe environment and contribute to the overall physical and mental development of our young people. We can also offer "development tracks" for those young athletes who possess the skills, desire and ability to compete and train for at the elite levels of their sport. Most players are not in this category.
As for asking hockey referees to do a better job of protecting the players by enforcing existing rules, as I have said in the past and say again, it is terrific in theory, but it faces many obstacles in practice, especially with regards to training, supervising, and developing officials in the face of a shortage of individuals willing to officiate and a lack of interest on the part of leagues to spend the money to develop and oversee officials.
There are no easy answers either way, but clearly the evidence is mounting at the professional, collegiate, high school and youth levels that changes need to occur to protect the players and the games they play.