Should of learned to take a hit in peewee. #shouldof

Should of learned to take a hit in peewee. #shouldof

Over the weekend, Hockey Canada came to a fairly overdue decision about hitting in minor hockey:

Body-checking rule change approved at 2013 Hockey Canada Annual General Meeting

-A modification to playing rule 6.2b was approved, removing body-checking from Peewee levels and below within leagues governed by Hockey Canada, starting in 2013-14.

-In addition to this rule change, a work group has been directed to build a mandatory national checking and instructional resource program to support the progressive implementation of checking skills at the Novice to Peewee levels to better prepare players for body-checking at the Bantam and Midget level.

Don Cherry, naturally, slammed the decision as the “politically correct” way to go, shrugging off the reasoning for the decision that Ron MacLean provided. Cherry waxed with “I don’t understand” in response to number of reported injuries at the bantam levels in Québec, where peewee body-checking isn’t allowed, and Alberta, where it was allowed.

Generally, the opposition to this rule comes from the idea that teaching kids how to hit safely, with the intention of separating player from puck, is best taught in the early days of hockey. The data, though, shows otherwise. Try telling that to the legions of, er, people with dissenting opinions, found in the timelines and retweets of prominent hockey analyst Bob McKenzie and, to a lesser extend, Halifax Mooseheads reporter Willy Palov Saturday morning.

Some press clippings:

Hockey players who learn to bodycheck at a young age have the same risk of serious head and neck injuries as those who start checking later, a new study from the University of Alberta has found.

The study, published this month by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicinein an early online release, adds to a growing body of research that counters the popular theory that children who learn to bodycheck sooner will learn to be more skilled at it, reducing their risk of injury as they advance through minor hockey.

That’s not new evidence, however. That’s from June of 2012, presumably too late to be on the docket for Hockey Canada’s 2012 Annual General Meeting. At the September kickoff event for Hockey Canada, executive director Bob Nicholson answered my questions on that topic by re-iterating the position of Hockey Canada at the time:

“We’re having good discussions on body checking. I go back to the key on this and we’ve been working on this for a number of years. Checking should be introduced as soon as they start, in that the first steps of checking are skating backwards, turning, containment, body contact. The issue becomes when do you go from contact to checking.”

Of course, Nicholson also admitted he hadn’t read the study, that there were just “so many different studies” out there, and evidently, that no evidence to the contrary would be able to convince him that kids can’t effectively learn how to check earlier.

It is an acquired skill. But much like skating, shooting, passing and the ability to put your jersey on without getting it caught on the back of the shoulder pads, there’s a wide gap in skill at younger ages. There were 74,501 peewee players registered in Canada in 2012-2013, and the difference in ability from the best one and the worst one is much wider than the difference in ability between the best NHLer and the 921st.

And… minor hockey in Canada has a problem. It’s difficult to find reliable registration numbers, but I did find that they went down from 2011 to 2012, and the cryptic language used at the kickoff event (over 550,000 registrants) possibly signalled another decline. It’s too expensive, it’s too dangerous, it’s too time-consuming. There are a number of good reasons for parents to put their kids in sports other than hockey.

(I’m told a lack of minority stars in the game makes hockey distant to certain immigrant families in Canada as well, but I can’t find the appropriate data to corroborate that. Anecdotal evidence at this point.)

Meanwhile, the Americans are catching up. A Toronto Star editorial in the summer suggested that USA Hockey rose to 500,579 registrants in 2010, falling just below Hockey Canada’s reported total (total players, no minor hockey) that year was 577,077, which isn’t much higher. The Americans have been cleaning up the world circuit at the junior ranks lately. Canada’s gold medal at the IIHF U-18s this season was somewhat of a surprise, and banked largely on the efforts of a hot goaltender, Philippe Desrosiers, in the final game, breaking a run of four consecutive wins by the Americans. Sweden had three consecutive silver medals.

USA Hockey banned body-checking for peewee-aged players two years ago.

Worse yet, Canada is no longer invincible at the World Junior Championships each season. Held without a gold medal since 2009, Canada managed to finish out of the medal tables this season despite the lockout freeing up two surefire NHLers in December. Indeed, Canada’s focus on toughness and hitting from the depth positions, rather than speed and skill, hurt the team’s ability to compete. We’re at the point now where Canada can no longer get away with icing anything less than the best available roster, or intimidate the opposition into submission.

I don’t think everything is solved by changing the age to start body-checking from 11 to 13, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The idea is to continuously work to remove barriers for parents that prevent them from putting their kids through hockey. “Safety” is a big one. Canada’s three best players, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron, have all sat out long stretches of games with concussions. The sight of Eric Staal on the ice at the World Championships howling in pain after Alex Edler hit him knee-on-knee wasn’t fun, nor is the constantly updating batch of videos produced by the NHL’s department of player safety.

Simply put, kids are finding other sports now, and hockey is competing with them. It doesn’t have the cultural stranglehold on Canada like it used to. We’re still producing a good number of elite players, but the growth of minor hockey has been stagnant and it needs to improve.

If the trade-off is that we’ll be turned into a nation of wimps because 12-year-olds aren’t going to be clocked in the face anymore, well, I’m willing to take the chance.