Study reignites bodychecking debate

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

What age should young hockey players start bodychecking?

That's a question that may come closer to an answer in May when Hockey Canada meets for its annual general meeting in St. John's, Nfld.

"We'll have a recommendation by then," Ontario Hockey Federation executive director Phil McKee said yesterday.

The bodychecking issue surfaced again on the weekend with reports of a study showing nearly twice as many injuries among players in Ontario, where bodychecking is allowed for children as young as nine, compared to Quebec, where bodychecking is forbidden in minor hockey- age groups.

The study, by orthopedic surgeon Andrew Howard of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and co-author Alison Macpherson, a York University professor, used emergency room data to make comparisons.

McKee said Macpherson is being invited to interpret the 70-page report for the OHF.

The Howard-Macpherson study will be taken, along with studies on bodychecking by Barry Willer of the University of New York at Buffalo and another from Saskatchewan, along with the OHF's own seven-year pilot study, to the Hockey Canada meeting.

Hockey Canada is the over-governing body for hockey in Canada.

"We are looking at the studies," said McKee.

"We need to make a decision based on all the studies. We want to see the data and look at the methodology. Each is a piece of the puzzle.

"We've invited Alison to present the material to our board for a full understanding."

McKee said he wanted to know the relationship and ratios behind the Ontario-Quebec comparison because Ontario has 220,000 players, compared to 88,000 in Quebec, and he wonders how that translates into per-capita injuries.

Howard has called for a ban on bodychecking for players younger than 14.

The OHF's study, which covered competitive players as young as nine and included those in the London Junior Knights program, is complete, McKee said.

The studies from all quarters should give an indication of what age is best to begin bodychecking, McKee said.

"The key will be the proper introduction at whatever age."

He added that educational programs (bodychecking clinics) have to be adopted by the coaches.

Tony Foresi, senior vice-president of the Minor Hockey Alliance of Ontario, under which the Junior Knights and the Greater London Hockey Association operate, said the Howard-Macpherson study isn't going to sway anybody.

"I believe it is a skill that needs to be taught and delivered properly at age nine to 10," he said.

"Hockey is changing greatly," he said.

"There are rules coming down that I think you will see in (2006-2007) that will change things, such as the stick.

"The stick can be used for only three things -- giving a pass, receiving a pass and shooting. Anything else will not be allowed.

"And if you can't use your stick, you've got to use something else. The only other thing you can use is your body.

"Then we, as administrators, need to put the proper teaching tools in place for our people to teach it, for our people to understand it, how to use it, that it's not a weapon, not a form of intimidation, but a skill."

Foresi noted there are various "streams" of hockey available to players.

The Greater London Hockey Association, with 2,300 house-league players, made it possible this year for a player to play hockey without bodychecking from atom to juvenile age groups.

There is no bodychecking for house-league players, except for "elite" house leaguers in what is known at the Forest City Hockey League, which has two of three divisions at the minor midget (age 15) and major midget (age 16-17) levels allowing bodychecking.

There is no bodychecking in the older juvenile division.

Regarding his league's rules, GLHA director-at-large Brad Pope said Hockey Canada is "signalling and leaning" toward omitting bodychecking at the house-league level everywhere.

Joe O'Neill, president of the Junior Knights, who has doubts about the validity of the data and methodology of some of the studies, said he doesn't believe anyone's thinking will change unless "the statistics are startling."

He said only 10 per cent of all minor-league players are involved in body-contact hockey and just two or three per cent are being studied.

It's his contention that bodychecking should be taught as early as age nine by competent instructors, as is done in the Junior Knights program, rather than be introduced at age 11 when the discrepancy in player sizes is more pronounced.

"We have to teach that bodychecking is to separate the player from the puck, not to separate the head from the body," he said.

O'Neill said the overwhelming majority of parents are in favour of early introduction of bodychecking.


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