Hockey – Our most dangerous game

An opinion piece written by Emile Therien, past president of the Canada Safety Council, and the father of former NHL defenceman Chris Therien.

January 2010

The never-ending incidents of on-ice thuggery are turning hockey into our most dangerous game. Horrible incidents – such as the recent head shot by Patrice Cormier on Mikael Tam in a Quebec major junior game – call to mind everything that is wrong with hockey in our country: poor leadership; an elitist and exclusionary attitude; lofty and unrealistic expectations; overzealous coaches and parents; and no fun or recreational benefits for the players.

The long-term brain damage suffered by Reggie Fleming during his professional playing career, as revealed by researchers at Boston University, should serve as a wake-up call for those Canadians concerned with the health and safety of all players, especially minor leaguers, and the future of the game as we know it.

The release of these findings coincided with statements made by Toronto neurosurgeon Charles Tator at the recent Hockey Canada sponsored concussion seminar who said there has been too much emphasis on “sock’em, kill-‘em type of hockey” in minor hockey. Dr. Tator has been a long-time advocate of finding better ways to make hockey a safer game.
The consequences of traumatic hits to the head speak for themselves. Research has found that hockey-related brain injuries, via hits to the head or bodies colliding against the boards or other bodies, can cause post-concussive symptoms, cognitive disorders, depression, personality changes and substance abuse.

As parents, my wife and I were always concerned about our son, Chris, sustaining injuries throughout his different careers at the various levels, up to his NHL playing days. We were particularly concerned about injuries to the face, eyes and head. Chris did suffer a concussion in the latter stages of his career. This was a very decisive factor in his decision to retire, after 12 years in the league. We wholeheartedly supported his decision to leave the game that he and we loved so much.

Chris was also plagued with a chronic shoulder injury from playing. This led to surgery. It is generally accepted that injuries are part and parcel of such a rough game. Players accept this. But no one should have to endure injuries resulting from on-ice violence such as fighting and cheap shots to the head.
An emotional debate has been raging for years about our national sport. Should body checking be allowed in minor hockey? According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 8,000 people were treated for hockey-related injuries in Ontario hospital emergency rooms in the 2002-‘03 season, in 93 cases the casualties were admitted to hospital, 15 directly to critical care units.

Among young hockey players (18 and under) 62 per cent of the injuries were a result of checking. Injuries caused by body checks were the most common in the 14 to 16 age group, after players have been exposed to body checking for several years.

In Quebec, players do not bodycheck until Bantam (ages 13 to 14), and even then it is only introduced at the elite levels of the game. Pee wee (ages 11 and 12) is when bodychecking begins in Alberta. A Canadian study found that Pee wee players in Alberta were 2.5 times more likely to get hurt and 3.5 times more likely to suffer a concussion than the Pee wee players in Quebec. The joint University of Calgary, McGill University, and the University of Laval study tracked 2,200 Pee wee players from both provinces for the entire 2007-2008 season to measure injury frequency.

The decision to allow body checking in minor hockey, for players as young as 11, is unquestionably jeopardizing this wonderful sport and favourite pastime. It is easily argued this practice borders on child abuse. It certainly flies in the face of public health, safety and injury prevention; it trumps medical science, common sense and civility.

Hitting is driving many young players away from the game. The main reason kids play any sport is for fun and recreation. The risk of serious injuries, including concussions, removes the motivation. Enrolment in Hockey Canada-approved teams has seen a shocking decline in recent years.

Violence degrades the world’s fastest, most physically challenging and most highly skilled game. Hockey is not, and has never been, a law of its own. And contrary to what proponents claim, violence, including fighting, has never been an integral part of the game.

Fighting is banned in minor hockey in this country, college hockey in both the U.S. and Canada, in the European leagues, in the Olympics, and in international play. Banning fighting in all leagues would greatly add to the skill level of the game, by eliminating marginal players in favour of skilled talent.

The sad and harsh reality is that violence in hockey has proliferated as long as Hockey Canada and its predecessor organization, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, have been in existence. It is easily argued Hockey Canada, through its relationship with the CHL, has been a willing participant in promoting and condoning violence in hockey for years.

A case in point: Patrice Cormier should have been, according to International Ice Hockey Federation rules, thrown out of the recent World Junior Championship for his violent hit on a Swedish player in an exhibition game. Unfortunately, this rule was not enforced.

Hockey Canada is calling for a safety summit. Hopefully, it is not too late to save the game of hockey in Canada, which has such strong and historical roots. A major overhaul is needed and soon. Who is up to the challenge?

Click to sign the petition by Parents for Safe Hockey on Change.org.