First contact, then none

To hit, or not to hit, that is the question. In hockey, the body checking ban is still a rough-and-tumble debate. Ban proponents assert it's the responsibility of the league to provide a safe environment for players.

To hit, or not to hit, that is the question.

In hockey, the body checking ban is still a rough-and-tumble debate.

Ban proponents assert it’s the responsibility of the league to provide a safe environment for players.

Opponents say removal of body checking retards development of elite players.

The Whitehorse Minor Hockey Association just wrapped up its third season since removing body checking. There are fewer injuries and more players on the ice, says league president John Grant.

“Whitehorse minor is not just a vehicle to develop rep hockey players—that’s part of the mandate,” said Grant. “But we’re also there to provide a fun, safe environment for any kid that wants too play hockey.

“Our enrolment has actually increased the last three years.”

After returning from the BC Provincials at the end of March, a few coaches of the five Mustang teams (Whitehorse rep squads) said their teams were slow to start because they had to get used to the physical play.

“I think it makes a big difference,” said Midget Mustangs coach Jim Stephens. “By the end of the tournament, we’re pretty settled. But in the early going, their timing and intensity is a little off.”

Hitting was abolished because the league is small and there was a sizeable concern about injuries. In fact, the two factors are related.

Because the league is small, and to give them stiffer competition, rep teams play up an age group in the house leagues.

And that one year can make a huge difference in physical size. So, although only separated by a year or two, some kids would potentially be receiving body checks from players much taller and heavier, said Grant.

“The size disparity is unbelievable,” he said.

The league organizers were also following Quebec’s lead.

Four years ago, the province abolished hitting up to a certain level (peewee and below) and, ever since, has seen a drop in emergency room visits in junior leagues.

“There’s some pretty compelling statistical data,” said Grant. “Even without body checking we still get injuries, but we haven’t had the plethora of injuries the last three years that we’ve experienced in the past.”

Banning checking reduces injuries, according to the medical journal Pediatrics, which compared injury rates in Quebec to those in Ontario, where hitting was still allowed.

Of 4,736 injuries sustained between the two provinces in one year, 63 per cent occurred in Ontario.

According to the same study, the number of hospital visits resulting from hitting increased in younger (10-13) age groups.

However, not everyone is convinced Whitehorse’s minor league is doing what’s best in the long run.

“I’d like parents to know they’re depriving their kids an opportunity by not having contact here,” said Ernie Jamieson, who coached the Bantam Mustangs B team in the BC provincials. “I appreciate my grandchild’s ability, but he’s not going anywhere in contact hockey. We have to get the contact back so when the kids go south they know what they’re doing.

“I’m talking about building hockey players, where everyone else is talking about recreation. There’s parents out there that control the whole situation that have very little or no idea of what’s it’s really about, except that they want their kid to go out and have fun. You have a few kids out to have fun and it brings the league down.”

Although hitting has been abolished, one aspect of the debate probably never will be—aren’t players more likely to suffer injuries in Outside tourneys if they’re not used to checking?

“It boils down to the fact that if the kids play contact hockey they have a better advantage going south to play elite teams,” said Jamieson. “Without contact we’re going into it blind.”

“Our serious injuries are down,” said Grant, referring to hockey within the territory. “The bantam tier-three team went to play a series of games in Whitby, BC, which was full-out contact. We ended up with one guy in the hospital with a ruptured spleen. The first time the bantam tier-three team went out we had two broken arms.”

Young rep players in Whitehorse do receive instruction on how to deliver and receive body checks, to prepare them for games against outside teams, said Grant. But his concern is nonetheless keeping kids in the sport, instead of concentrating on creating elite athletes.

“And we found we were losing kids,” said Grant, speaking of when checking was still allowed. “They get up in peewee or bantam and they don’t want to be getting hammered around.”

Contact Tom Patrick at tomp@yukon-news.com