(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.