In June 2011, USA Hockey approved a rule banning body checking in youth hockey until the Bantam level (13-14 year olds). The rule was first proposed at the organization's winter meeting January 22-23) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The old rule, which allowed bodychecking in games at the Pee Wee level (11-12 year olds), had come under increasing fire, especially after a 2010 Canadian study (1) found that allowing body checking at that level tripled the risk of concussions.
Significant support for rule seen
In announcing the proposed rule at USA Hockey's winter meetings in January 2011, USA Hockey President, Ron DeGregorio accurately predicted that the new rule would have "significant support." In a statement on USA Hockey's website, DeGregorio said his organization, the governing body for amateur hockey in the United States, "look[ed] forward to a continued dialog throughout the country on this and all proposed rule changes. In the end, we need to do what is best for the kids who play the game."
While USA Hockey's senior director of hockey development, Kevin McLaughlin, told Toronto's Globe and Mail, that the 2011 Canadian study reinforced the need for the rule change, he said the the rule was not designed primarily to address safey issues. "It's a skill development initiative first," McLaughlin said, based on USA Hockey's research that bodychecking at the Pee Wee level (11-12 year olds) was significantly distracting players from improving their skills at a crical time in their development, with players either too focused on hitting or trying to avoid a hit.
But he admitted safety concerns were a factor.
"What we find is that an 11-year-old brain is more susceptible to concussion," McLaughlin said. "The 11- and 12-year-old brain is not cognitively developed to anticipate being hit. So if you can't anticipate it and you can't protect yourself, you're putting yourself in a predicament to suffer a more severe injury."
A June 2010 study (2) published in the journal Pediatrics found that Bantam players in the "ready" position who anticipated collisions, e.g. those whose knees and trunk were flexed with feet shoulder-width apart, and who used their legs to drive their shoulders through the body check - suffered significantly less severe impacts to their heads during collisions.
Other hockey safety recommendations
Emphasizing the teaching of anticipating body contact was also among the recommendations made to USA Hockey's board at its winter meeting by Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey's chief medical officer and a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who led an ice hockey concussion summit at the clinic in October 2010. Additional recommendations by Dr. Stuart included:
- Implementing concussion education for coaches, parents, officials and athletes;
- Through rule changes, eliminate tolerance for any contact to the head and neck;
- Eliminate fighting through more stringent penalties for engaging in such behavior.
The recommendations were approved by USA Hockey in June 2011 as part of what is dubbed the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program, which also included the following elements:It encourages more body contact in the pre-body checking age categories by providing more training and support for coaches and referees; and encouraging more legal body contact in the pre-body checking age categories through "Point of Emphasis" rule #1 passed by the Board.
- It tightens the standard of play for intimidation hits in the legal body checking age categories. Beginning in the 2011-12 season, legal body checking in games will begin at the Bantam age level (ages 13-14).
- Beginning in 2011-12, each USA Hockey coach will be required to take an age-specific training module which will provide training information consistent with long-term athlete and childhood development principles for the age category the coach will be engaged with. Each module will include training information for body contact and checking.
- Each season, USA Hockey officials attend clinics that review points of emphasis relating to the standard of play. These 2011-12 clinics will focus on allowing more body contact consistent with the rules in pre-checking age categories and a tighter standard of play for roughing, cross-checking, boarding, charging, high-sticking and other intimidation hits in the legal body checking divisions.
- USA Hockey will monitor the on-ice management of games with regular reports from local referee-in-chiefs, coach-in-chiefs and Association Coaching and Education (ACE) administrators to USA Hockey's national office staff in Colorado Springs.
- USA Hockey will conduct research on the effect of the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program on risk reduction and skill development. The results of the research will be published when completed.
- The Board also passed rules that prohibit any check that comes in contact with the head or neck. The goal of this rule is to make the player more responsible for actions that make contact to the head or neck similar to rules now in place for stick infractions to the head.
Children are big winners
"This program has taken several years of research and discussion to formulate," said Ron DeGregorio, president of USA Hockey. "USA Hockey has the training and support elements in place for our coaches and referees. Parents should know that this program will better prepare their children for the physical part of the game. It should produce less risk since we will be training players in body contact at an earlier age in a progressive manner. We'll also be tightening up the standard of play for intimidation hits in the youth checking divisions.
"There's a lot to like about USA Hockey and particularly today, as our Board has taken a bold step forward in doing what is right for children. We are, at our core, a youth sports organization and doing what's right for children must always be at the heart of our decisions."
"The big winner today is our children," said Tom Chorske, former NHL player and current member of USA Hockey's Board of Directors. "I support all facets of the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program."
"With the knowledge base we have on child development, this is without question the right way forward," said Bret Hedican, former NHL player and two-time Olympian. "Today is a significant one for our sport."
Until the new USA Hockey rule was adopted, the Canadian province of Quebec was the only place to implement a ban on bodychecking at the Pee Wee level, and even there there is pressure to soften the ban. The Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee de Quebec, with 2,200 players on 114 teams from 15 countries the world's largest hockey tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds, recently amended its rule to include an elite AA division where bodychecking is permitted.
Other hockey associations in Canada have not followed Quebec's lead. "It's not on our radar to raise the age" at which bodychecking is banned, Ontario Hockey League executive director, Phillip McKee, told the Globe and Mail. "There's a lot of research out there on when bodychecking is best introduced. Some would argue it is important to introduce it at a younger age where there isn't as much testosterone involved, [and] where there's less discrepancy in the size of the individual players."
McLaughlin of USA Hockey suggested that, in the event bodychecking is delayed for two years to the Bantam level, Pee Wee teams will be still encouraged to learn the art of hitting in practices, describing it as the hockey equivalent of a two-year driver's education program. The hope is that when players reach the Bantam age, they will be familiar enough by practicing bodychecking that the transition will be relatively seemless.
McKee's argument that allowing bodychecking at an early age reduces bodychecking injuries at older ages (Bantam and Midget divisions), however, is undercut by a 2011 Canadian study (3) finding that "the odds of trauma to the head and brain increased as soon as children were exposed to bodychecking and did not decline in the older age divisions. Despite the growing evidence of the detrimental effects of bodychecking," the study found "no evidence to indicate that earlier exposure to bodychecking and earlier learning about how to give and receive a bodycheck lowers subsequent odds of injury in hockey."
"While proponents argue lowering the age for bodychecking helps players learn how to properly bodycheck and reduces injuries at older ages, our study clearly shows the opposite - the risk of all injuries, and especially brain injuries, increases with exposure to bodychecking," said Dr. Michael Cusimano, lead author of the study and a neurosurgeon in the Division of Neurosurgery and Injury Prevention Research Office at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, in an interview with Canada.com.
[March 5, 2013 update: While bodychecking is still allowed in Canada at the Pee Wee level outside of the province of Quebec, a February 2013 survey finds overwhelming support among Canadians for a national ban, with 88% - including 75% of hockey parents and 86% of those who consider themselves fans - supporting such a policy. Perhaps surprisingly, 82% - including 62% of the parents and 79% of the fans - would support such a ban at the Bantam level (13- and 14-year-olds). Such a ban has been advocated by the Canadian Paediatric Society, and, in the U.S., by a leading and influential concussion expert, Dr. Robert C. Cantu.]
Press Release: USA Hockey Board of Directors Approves All Points of Progressive Checking Skill Development Program (http://www.usahockey.com/Template_Usahockey.aspx?NAV=AU_02_03&id=305004)(accessed June 12, 2011)
"Winter Meetings Prove Productive" USA Hockey (accessed February 3, 2011)
Duhatschek E, "USA Hockey considers banning bodychecking for youth players" Toronto Globe and Mail (February 1, 2011) (accessed February 3, 2011).
1. Emery, C. Risk of Injury Associated with Body Checking Among Youth Ice Hockey Players. J. Am. Med. Assn 2010;22:2265-2272
2. Mihalik, Jason, Blackburn, J. Troy, Greenwald, Richard M., Cantu, Robert C, Marshall, Stephen W., Guskiewicz, Kevin, M. Collision Type and Player Anticipation Affect Head Impact Severity Among Youth Ice Hockey Players. Pediatrics 2010;125(6):1394-1401.
3. Cusimano MD, Taback NA, McFaull SR, Hodgins R, Bekele TS, Elfeki N. Effect of bodychecking on rate of injuries among minor hockey players. Open Medicine 2011;5(1):E57-64.
Posted February 3, 2011, revised March 17, 2011, updated March 5, 2013