(Jeremy Nolais, Cochrane Eagle Online)

A recent study by two University of Alberta researchers has been getting some attention in the media for tackling the contentious issue of body checking in minor hockey. Specifically, the study takes on the argument that introducing body checking at a younger age would limit future injuries, as kids would learn how to properly deliver and receive body checks earlier.

As per usual when academic research is publicized, many are making wide-sweeping generalizations out of research that is actually quite limited in scope. The Globe and Mail ran an article on the study under the headline “Youth bodychecking myth dispelled.” The Fairview Post echoed that headline with the clunkier “Hockey myth re: bodychecking debunked.” The Edmonton Sun went with the blindingly obvious headline “Hockey hits not safe,” which manages to be completely true and completely miss the point at the same time.

Even the press release from the University of Alberta that has been making the rounds makes claims that are either not supported by the study or obfuscate some of the results of their research.

Since I’m still technically a graduate student (and if any of my professors are reading this, I’m really sorry about my late papers), I had the chance to go to the source – the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine – and read the study itself. While sports medicine is pretty far removed from my field, I can at least clear the air around some of the claims that are being made.

The study is fairly simple in terms of methodology: they looked at two groups of minor hockey players in Alberta, one from prior to 2002 and one from after 2002. The reason for that split is that was the year that the Canadian Hockey Association lowered the age groups for Atom, PeeWee, Bantam, etc. by one year. Thus, body checking was introduced to the post-2002 group one year earlier than the pre-2002 group.

The researchers, Andrew Harris, Donald Voaklander, and Colleen Drul, looked at emergency room records for the over 8000 players and compared injury rates between the two groups to see if introducing body checking one year earlier did reduce injuries over time. They only looked at players from Atom to Bantam, meaning the maximum age of a player included in the study is 15.

If their methodology is sound, one would expect to find lower injury rates in the post-2002 group if the theory that introducing hitting earlier reduces injuries over time. Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what they did find.

Harris states in the press release, “Our results showed that introducing bodychecking earlier does not reduce these risks. We did not find significantly different injury rates for serious injuries such as fractures or head and neck injuries, or any intracranial injury.” While it is true that the rates for the injuries he mentions did not change significantly between the two groups, overall injuries were decreased.

In the post-2002 cohort of players, there was a lower injury rate at the Atom, PeeWee, and Bantam levels, with the change being most noticeable at the PeeWee level. The most the researchers could conclude in regards to this reduction in overall injuries was, “It is unclear as to why the rate of injuries that were neither fractures nor head and neck injuries significantly decreased for the post–age change cohort in the Peewee and Bantam divisions.”

If this doesn’t sound like it lives up to the hype of “Youth bodychecking myth dispelled,” you’re not the only one.

Here is the actual conclusion the researchers came to from the abstract, which is available online:

Conclusions: Introducing body checking 1 year earlier than in a previous cohort (11 vs 12 years of age) neither significantly decreased nor increased the rate of serious ice hockey injuries occurring 2 years after the introduction of body checking. Further research is recommended to evaluate the claim that introducing body checking lowers injury rates in older divisions of hockey.

So let’s make this clear: the study only looked at injuries occurring two years after hitting was introduced, found that injuries overall were reduced, though serious injuries remained the same, and that “further research is recommended.” But the media is treating this study like it has completely resolved the issue and anyone that wants to introduce body checking in hockey at a young age is fighting against Science! complete with a capital-S and an exclamation point.

I am by no means advocating body checking in PeeWee hockey. It has been shown by many other studies that leagues with body checking have more injuries (3 times as many seems to be the consensus) than leagues without and I’d prefer that kids experience fewer injuries overall. But it’s inaccurate to say that this study has resolved the issue or dispelled any myths.

At best, it’s a useful look at injury rates in minor hockey that could lead to more research down the road. But it’s deceiving when the author of the study makes sweeping statements like “Exposing 11- and 12-year-olds to bodychecking is not helping matters at the upper level, so there is no point in continuing it.” Considering his own study only went up to the age of 15, which is still fairly far removed from “the upper level,” it’s completely disingenuous.

On the heels of another study that compared Alberta PeeWee hockey with Quebec PeeWee hockey, where body checking is not allowed, and found that the risk of concussions was more than tripled in Alberta, Hockey Calgary put the issue to a vote. Their members voted to keep body checking in PeeWee hockey.

Comments (8)

  1. It really comes down to coaching for body checking. Playing in Nova Scotia, I wasn’t allowed to hit until Bantem (its been since lowered to Pee Wee) and my first summer before Bantam hockey I went to a body checking camp to learn. The coaches there were great, I learned alot about how to throw a hit but also how to take a hit and other skills like fighting for the puck along the boards etc.

    When I stepped on the ice after that there was absolutely zero coaching. I didn’t play a high level, but even the lower rep level coaches did nothing to teach these skills and hitting went from what was taught to reckless plays throwing your body at a guy and trying to do what you saw on TV.

    I don’t think kids need to be hitting before Pee Wee (or even Bantem hockey really) but the coaches need to know how to teach this and actually go through it while running the skating, shooting and passing skills in practice.

  2. I agree, Paul. But the thing is, when you’re coaching 9 and 10 year old kids, what would be a more valuable use of precious ice time: A drill educating the kids on how to check, or a drill that works skating and has some puck handling thrown in?

    Personally, I’ll do the skating drill every time for young kids who are still trying to master the basics. I want my kids to be better skaters, not better able to check. I’m not saying I abandon the lessons on basic contact and I want to make sure my kids know enough not to put themselves into vulnerable positions, but I don’t want this to be the focal point of my practices.

  3. Too bad hockey has now become the latest victim of the movement to eliminate all risk from children’s lives. In 100 years when North America has become a third world colony, it’ll be some wizened old hockey dad who will be nostalgic for the days when we knew how to compete. Risk on the playground, the court, the field and in the rink, leads to innovation and risk taking in the market place. As the pampered prodigy of the politically correct come to age don’t expect any of them to know how to take a risk in the business world, the laboratory, the operating theatre… . Their minds will be as pudgy as their bellies with no abilities for strategic, decisive, risk taking thinking.

  4. Not to completely agree with with H Cowan, but playing hockey is not mandatory. It is up to the parents to determine the level of risks they want their children to be exposed to. This includes other activities like hunting, swimming, baseball, etc. I just would not want the last comment in the article about the Alberta decision to be characterized as wanton disregard for children’s safety. Nobody is forcing kids to play check hockey.

  5. I think the only way to do a proper study on the issue is to study one group that starts checking at a young age, and compare to a group that starts at a higher age, and to follow them for several years to see the long term effects. Studying for 2 years and stopping at 15 years old doesn’t prove if it better or worse in the end. To me this study was a waste of time and effort because they didn’t follow through as much as they needed to.

  6. No study in science is ever fully conclusive, even if it’s the gold seal double-blind experimental manipulation that Krafty is demanding. Even then there would be alternate explanations or variables that could have been omitted (e.g., how was the hitting taught? Was there something different about that particular population of young hockey players, etc). This is just how science works – it accumulates evidence over time. Some studies are better than others, and you have to be careful about what each one does and doesn’t reveal, but over time a clearer picture emerges. This study is a great start, and castigating it as a waste of time is just ignorant.

    • I don’t think the study is a waste of time at all. I agree with the study’s conclusions, however, that state that further inquiry is needed. The media and even one of the authors of the study, however, are casting it in a completely different light. They’re the ones treating this study as conclusive rather than a step along the road.

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