One of Canada's largest hockey associations will ban bodychecking for peewee players as momentum grows to have the disputed practice eliminated for adolescents who doctors say are suffering high rates of hockey-related concussions and fractures.
Hockey Alberta announced it would do away with bodychecking for 11- and 12-year-old players following a fractious debate that saw the resignation of Hockey Calgary's president after he suggested the practice be banned.
"Our players' safety is the foundation in making this decision," Rob Virgil, Hockey Alberta's board chairman, said in a statement Wednesday.
"There is overwhelming evidence that bodychecking is the single most consistent risk factor for injuries and concussions in youth ice hockey."
The announcement comes as several provincial hockey associations prepare for their annual general meetings, where many plan to discuss whether bodychecking should continue to be allowed at the peewee level.
Hockey Nova Scotia will debate the issue this weekend when a group of physicians, including a pediatric neurologist, a pediatric brain surgeon and a sports physiotherapist, will make the case to ban bodychecking at the peewee level with the hope that it could eventually be extended to bantam hockey.
Dr. Andrew Lynk, a Nova Scotia physician and the incoming president of the Canadian Pediatric Society, is co-ordinating the presentation and says he will lay out the growing body of medical evidence that supports a ban on checking for young kids.
"We know that kids with one concussion seem to be susceptible to getting secondary concussions, so it can actually end or shorten your hockey career," he said from his office in Sydney.
"At that age, the adolescent brain is making huge changes ... so it is a sensitive time, for sure."
Lynk says he has treated kids who have had concussions on the ice, with some sidelined for months or dropping out of hockey altogether. They suffer from dizziness, poor concentration, degraded sleep and can lose IQ points.
"We think we could save a lot of little brains from getting injured unnecessarily and still develop into fine, elite hockey players," he said.
The association's board will review the material over the weekend and decide Sunday whether it too should eliminate bodychecking at that level, said Hockey Nova Scotia spokesman Garreth MacDonald.
He said they will also look at increasing the opportunities for kids to play non-contact hockey at other minor levels, much like the way it is done in recreational hockey.
"There have been some requests from the medical community and from some parents to review this issue," said MacDonald. "We're just looking to make the game as fun and as safe as possible for our players."
The Greater Toronto Hockey League, the largest amateur league in the world, proposed last month to raise the age bodychecking can start to 13 from 11. It suggested it could also eventually move toward banning bodychecking in some bantam divisions, which include kids aged 13 and 14.
Debate over when to allow players to start hitting has inflamed emotions on both sides of the argument for years, but gathered steam after research came out of Alberta last year showing that there was a three-fold increase in the risk of injuries for peewee players who check in Alberta, compared to those in Quebec where bodychecking is not allowed until bantam.
The paper, which represents the Canadian Pediatric Society's position on bodychecking, said it should be banned at all recreational levels, delayed until age 13 for elite players and not allowed at all for girls.
Paul Carson, vice-president of development for Hockey Canada, said the issue will be front and centre when the organization meets in a few weeks in Charlottetown for its yearly meeting.
Carson, who was in Stockholm for the IIHF World Championships, said momentum seems to be building across the country to course correct and return the start age for bodychecking to 13.
He worries that putting too much emphasis on the physical game at an early age impedes the development of pure hockey skills.
"I really believe that youngsters need an opportunity to develop a very broad set of early skills and my concern is that the development of those skills is interrupted when the checking game is introduced," he said.
"It's always been an emotional issue and I hope people can move a little bit to the left and look squarely at the issues of safety, skill development and make the decisions based on what we do know."
Hockey Alberta's decision, which was made by its board, provoked immediate and heated exchanges on Twitter, with the majority saying the ban will result in greater injuries for kids.
"Ridiculous. Bringing up our youth players to be sissies. Taking the spirit out of hockey," read one tweet. Another said: "What a joke. Kids are gonna be getting killed in bantam now!"
Kelly McClintock, general manager of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association, also panned the decision, saying bodychecking is a skill that should be taught to kids as young as eight or nine.
"Our view is, start it younger, teach it as a skill just like any other skill and there's less likelihood of there being any injuries," he said from Regina.
-- With files from Alex Migdal in Edmonton.