As the new season begins there is a renewed focus on safety in youth hockey in the USA, and in Minnesota in particular. With a heightened awareness of the potential for severe injury in contact sports like hockey and football the NGOs like USA Hockey are attacking the problem with more infrastructure surrounding teams to help protect players from each other, coaches and strangers.
Although this all sounds like a reasonable response, the question is will the new rules and requirements really achieve the desired results? Youth hockey teams are now required to have a "responsible adult" in the locker room at all times and the coaches are not eligible to fill this role. Beginning in the Fall of 2013 each team will also be required to have a safety manager. On ice officials are asked to be more diligent in their calls involving dangerous plays, and in Minnesota the penalties for checking from behind and boarding are now mandatory 5 minute majors and additional time for misconduct. All of these measure are easy to mandate, but will they work? Time will tell if anybody actually tracks the data, which currently is not being done.
One question that should be asked and answered is how safe can a contact/collision sport be? Or perhaps we need to ask how many injuries are acceptable? We should also look at the factors that are involved with injuries. One of the biggest factor is skill. Lesser-skilled players suffer more injuries, according to the data we collected in Minnesota for three years. Teams that play lots of games have more injuries, so maybe there need to be some limits on the number of games. Lower-skilled teams tend to have lower-skilled coaches. Can we change that? Yes but it takes time and effort at the local levels.
High school hockey in Minnesota has its own unique set of issues, since there is no oversight, training, or certification of referees.The same for coaches in high school. Change will be slower at that level and kids will continue to get seriously injured.
Change will only occur when parents decide that change is required. Until then it is likely to be business as usual.