Hockey Manitoba has been cracking down on hits to the head lately.
Not because there are a lot more kids walking around local rinks with giant-sized headaches. It’s more that officials don’t want young hockey players to end up with the same cobwebs being weaved through Sidney Crosby’s brain these days.
“I would say it’s a concern where our members could be at risk,” said Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods. “And it’s the obligation of the sports governing body to take an active interest in preventing (concussions). Certainly, there have been a lot of high-profile NHL players who have suffered injuries due to head shots.
“We sent bulletins out the last couple of weeks to make sure our rules are being followed.”
Officials are to call a two-minute minor and 10-minute misconduct, with repeat offenders facing suspensions.
“Part of the problem we do have is our officials sometimes try to be the nice guy and they substitute roughing for a two and a 10,” said Ken Lazaruk, one of a number of Winnipeg Minor Hockey Association referees-in-chief who also blows a whistle at high school, juvenile and atom hockey games. “It’s a message that we’re trying to get across to the amateur officials, that there’s no substitute. Just like there’s no substitute for checking from behind. So it’s more of an educational thing we’re dealing with now, to make sure the officials are more consistent.
“As long as there are hits to the head, which there are, it’s a problem. Depending on the level, it’s not a big concern. The higher the level you go in hockey, the more hits to the head. It’s an ongoing thing. I wouldn’t say it’s escalated (in Manitoba).”
But it has become a growing concern at the top level.
“In the NHL, we’re talking about powerful people getting hit by really powerful people,” said Lazaruk. “And I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in amateur hockey. But it’s not as violent, for the most part, as checking from behind. Those two rank right up there among penalties that must be called.”
There hasn’t been an increase in the number of concussions suffered by minor hockey league players here. It stands at about 5% of all injuries reported and not all of those are the results of illegal hits to the head.
“The information that we have is that the numbers are relatively low,” Woods said. “But we would still like to see it reduced.”
Hockey Canada has approached manufacturers of hockey equipment to see if they can produce a softer shell for both shoulder and elbow pads.
“The players may be more protected now than they ever were but a lot of equipment can be used as weapons, although not intentionally,” Woods said, adding the softer shells would reduce the risk of cracks to the head.
CBC-TV commentator Don Cherry recently said ‘STOP’ should be written on helmets to prevent hits to the head in the same manner it was written on the backs of sweaters of minor hockey players to reduce hits from behind.
“Any small step could help, along with adjustments to the rules, such as playing the puck only on dump-ins,” Woods said.
Hockey Manitoba doesn’t have mandatory clinics to teach youngsters how to give and take hits, which could also address the issue. Such clinics are offered on a voluntary basis here.
Preventing injuries from both hits to the head and checking from behind does need a different mindset.
“Sportsmanship,” Lazaruk, a former CFL official, said. “From the players and coaches and fans. It’s all over. It’s a passionate game, and I can understand emotions getting away. But I can’t agree with some of the reactions from fans and parents and coaches and players, some of the things they say and do.”
Manitoba Junior Hockey League players are learning to adjust to greater scrutiny when it comes to hits to the head.
“The junior supplement that was implemented this year was primarily to combat those types of hits, to get rid of excess violence in hockey,” said MJHL director of officiating Jody Wielgosh. “I know there’s been a lot of press about head injuries lately but we’re well-positioned. To say it doesn’t happen any more wouldn’t be true but it doesn’t happen as much.
“I can’t really give you any data on it but we are keeping data on it this year and next year and we are going to compare it to other leagues that don’t have the same consequences in place.”
Wielgosh conceded officials in other leagues may be reluctant to call such harsh infractions, but not those in the MJ.
“I’ve seen a difference in the way the players are playing the game knowing that head shots won’t be tolerated,” he said. “We’re talking about the future of these players, whether it be in pros or college and even later in life. We’ve all seen how concussions can affect the quality of life.
“We’re talking about the education that goes along with preventing those types of injuries, not just introducing new rules.”
— With files from Paul Friesen