Body Checking - When is it appropriate to introduce it to kids' hockey
Russell Gunner, C.A.T. (C)

Special to CBC News:

Mention kids, hockey and body checking in the same sentence and you're bound to start a bit of a debate. Now, before you start yelling at me for attacking such a controversial topic, we need to look at all the data and research. For years, experts (coaches and medical professionals) have argued about the specific age to introduce body contact to youth hockey and whether or not it makes growing children more prone to injuries.
There is no body checking allowed in girls' hockey (although they have an increased incidence of concussions than boys do, but more about this later), so we will only be talking about the boys here.

There have been numerous studies over the years analyzing this topic, but one of the more educated ones was done by Alison Macpherson, (an assistant professor at York University's School of Kinesiology & Health), and her co-author Dr. Andrew Howard (a staff orthopedic surgeon, co-director of the Trauma Program and a scientist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children) titled, "Body Checking Rules and Childhood Injuries in Ice Hockey." The study looked at the number of hospital room visits by young players in Ontario and Quebec. It was done between September 1995 and August 2002, and appeared in the February 2006 issue of Pediatrics.

"We looked at children who were seen in hospital emergency departments and we found that at ages 10 to 13, children were almost twice as likely to have a checking-related injury in Ontario, where checking was allowed, than in Quebec, where it was not allowed," said Macpherson. "They were also more likely to suffer a concussion or a fracture where checking was allowed."

The study found 63 per cent, or 3,006, of the 4,736 injuries reported during that period were in Ontario, compared to 37 per cent, or 1,730, in Quebec. The majority of the injuries — 59.6 per cent, or 2,824 — occurred in areas where checking was allowed. These injuries ranged from fractures to concussions.

It was actually in 2002 that Hockey Canada reversed its 20-year-old rule and allowed nine-year-olds to start hitting (I think I started getting nailed by those bigger kids when I was four). However, due to the backlash they received from the parents and medical professionals alike, they reversed their decision in May 2003, and increased the age back to 11.

Rules on body checking in boys' hockey varies among the provincial hockey associations.

BCAHA (British Columbia): Peewee and above.
HA (Alberta): Peewee and above.
SHA (Saskatchewan): Atom (all levels) and above.
HM (Manitoba): Peewee and above.
OHF (Ontario): Atom (Rep/Select only) and above.
ODHA (Ottawa): Atom (Rep/Select only) and above.
HNO (Northwestern Ontario): Peewee and above.
HN (North): Peewee and above.
HQ (Quebec): Bantam AA and above.
PEIHA (Prince Edward Island): Peewee and above.
HNS (Nova Scotia): Peewee and above.
HNB (New Brunswick): Peewee and above.
HNFL (Newfoundland): Peewee and above.
One of the theories behind starting early is that if the kids are properly taught how to give and receive a body check, they will be less likely to injure themselves. This is certainly where the difference of opinions begins.

If kids wait until 14, as Macpherson's study is suggesting, then you run the risk of seeing significant size differences between the kids. If you have teenaged kids, you know they will hit puberty at slightly different stages. If your son is among those who develop more slowly than other kids in the league, and you see that big kid who's already showing signs of a beard on the other team going after him, you no doubt will brace yourself for what is about to come. However, if your son learned how to take a hit when he was nine, you might feel a little more comfortable — while still bracing yourself.

As a father and coach of a five- and eight-year-old playing house league hockey, I constantly see kids skating with their heads down while going for the puck or even while carrying it. If you do that when you make the NHL, you will be become a victim of some highlight reel hit on the nightly news.

If kids are taught (as we try preaching at every practice) to skate with their heads up, then this may make them more prepared to receive a hit.

Learning how to hit is just as important as learning how to take one. You ask any NHL player, and they will tell you that what looks like a bone-crushing hit into the boards doesn't hurt as bad as you think. It's the open ice (crossing centre ice) hits that are more likely going to result in a visit to the therapist's office after the game. You need to absorb a hit into the boards when you see a player coming at you.

Next time you see a player take a hit in the corner, watch how he braces himself, and almost jumps into the boards to absorb the 230-lb shock that is about to ram into him. If kids are taught this early, watching your 14-year-old getting creamed would be easier to take (as long as he gets up).

Another study done in 2003 by Anthony Marchie and Michael Cusimano at the University of Toronto on body checking and concussions in hockey, recommended that body checking be banned for all ages.

"The risks of body checking makes it clear that checking is not necessary for play at the Canadian minor league hockey level (a position supported by the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine)."

They also discovered that there can be significant differences in body size and strength which can occur in all age groups, "but they are most pronounced from 13 to 15 years; differences of 53 kg in body mass and 55 cm in height between the smallest and largest players have been reported in this age group."

Essentially they concluded that since most physical growth is not complete before a person is 17 or 18 years old, body checking and hitting should be banned until at least that age. However, if this is the case you will be teaching body checking at the NHL or junior level. Talk to any coach, and he will tell you what he thinks of that.

Hockey Canada looked at the issue in 2006 and decided to ban body checking at the atom level, meaning nine- and 10-year-old boys. "We really wanted to make sure it's a safe environment and also that they were taught the skills in the proper way," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said.

A study of hockey injuries in the U.S. college system found that — compared to men — women were more likely to suffer a concussion. In the NCAA study, they found that 18.3 per cent of all women's hockey injuries were concussions. For men, 7.9 per cent of hockey injuries were concussions while concussions accounted for six per cent of football injuries.

Women are suffering concussions at a greater rate then men, even though there's no body contact in women's hockey.

Dr. Michelle Keightley, a neuropsychologist with the BrainFit lab at the University of Toronto, said "The lack of body checking makes people assume that the contacts necessary to elicit a concussive episode aren't present in the female game. This simply isn't true."

It could be that women are far more willing to consult medical staff following a possible concussive event than men are. This could lead to more diagnoses among women — but we won't know for sure without more research into women's sports injuries. Men still lead the field there by a wide margin.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't want my kid or yours sidelined because of a body check. However, if hockey is to continue to allow it as part of the sport and kids were taught earlier when they are mostly the same size, you can only wonder if it would decrease their chance of injury as they get older.