Commentary: Science shows yes vote is way to go on Peewee body checking ban

Update, June 13: USA Hockey’s Board of Directors passed the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program on Saturday. More details at the USA Hockey website.

There is a heated debate raging across youth hockey in North America, and it comes to a head in Colorado Springs, Colo., this weekend.

On the table is a proposal to eliminate body checking in games from the Peewee age group, which is 12 and under. The vote happens this weekend at the USA Hockey Annual Congress. While 85 percent of the country is playing under this rule and 55 percent of Canadian Peewee leagues are also in the no-body-checking fold, some folks have been adamant that this cannot be allowed to pass.

To those who feel this way I will say that until fully learning the minutia of the proposal I, too, was skeptical. How we can we deprive players of the ability to learn how to give and — more importantly — receive a body check?

I was in attendance in Verona, N.Y., at the New York State Amateur Hockey Association annual meeting last weekend. Through presentations by American Developmental Model administrator Bob Mancini and others, as well as detailed explanation by USA Hockey president Ron DeGregorio, I now have a very good understanding of the proposal. When you examine it and see the medical research that has been done on the U-12 age group, one gets the feeling that this is a rule change we need to have passed and followed.

“We want to allow players to continue to have body contact,” DeGregorio said. “We don’t want to remove contact; we want to take out the dangerous hits to kids whose bodies and brains are still in a very developmental stage.”

It has been learned through extensive medical research that the 11- and 12-year-old brain is not ready to handle that type of contact associated with outright body checking.

NHL analyst Mike Milbury was as tough as they came as a player. When someone like him and some of the other former NHL bruisers on a USA Hockey subcommittee on this issue come out and say that we need a change in the level of physical play at any age group, you would be inclined to listen.

“As a parent, I listened with great interest as Dr. Michael Stuart presented information that indicated that kids under the age of 11 or even 12 were more susceptible to concussions, and also that the impact of those concussions could last for extended periods of time,” Milbury said in a story in USA Hockey Magazine. “Clearly, kids at that age are not developed physically enough to enter into this kind of contact without real jeopardy to their health.”

Dr. Stuart of the Mayo Clinic is the co-director of sports medicine as well as the vice-chair of orthopedic surgery. He had three sons — Mike, Colin and Mark — play at Colorado College. In a conversation with Christopher Riley, a former NCAA player and youth coach in New Jersey, Stuart mentioned that “a body shot with a whiplash effect can cause problems. Neck muscles come into play for checking.”

Riley, doing his masters thesis on “Concussions In The Sport of Ice Hockey,” then spoke with Dr. Charles Tator. Tator is the senior scientist in the Division of Genetics and Development at Western Hospital in Toronto. He is also the founder of “Think First,” a Canadian national organization dedicated to the prevention of brain and spinal cord injuries.

“Players need to strengthen their neck muscles,” Tator said. “The one area that has a tough time growing and catching up are those muscles. When kids advance to adolescence the neck muscles are the last set of muscles to strengthen.”

Why is that a factor in this discussion? The human head at the time a kid is a Peewee is about 6-8 pounds. Helmets add another 2-4 pounds to the equation. You now have added weight to an unstable and underdeveloped muscle group protecting your most important organ, your brain. When it gets hit either directly or as part of the whiplash effect it multiplies the force directly on the brain as it slams against the skull wall.

That directs back to Milbury’s point about the use of contact versus the “big hit” of finishing a check on a player that just moved the puck and is unsuspecting.

“I believe the introduction of physical play into the game should come at a deliberate pace,” Milbury said. “It starts with teaching body contact — rubbing, bumping, edging out and gaining proper positioning on an opponent — rather than focusing on hard hits.”

It was stated at the recent Mayo Clinic “Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion” Symposium that the 11-year-old brain:

• is more easily concussed;

• takes longer to recover from a concussion;

• is susceptible to more serious long-term effects, if it suffers a concussion;

• is not developed enough to ‘anticipate’ being hit while also trying to play hockey, with the ability to “anticipate” being hit being 50 percent of avoiding injury.

To further the point, the USA Hockey player development committee subcommittee on body checking recommended that a proposal be submitted to the playing rules committee that delays full body checking until the 14-and-under youth classification.

After an extensive study and discussion, the committee, which featured such names as Milbury, Al MacInnis and Brendan Shanahan came to the conclusion that “skill development is the No. 1 reason to delay full body-checking until Bantams.”

Per the Long Term Athlete Development model, 9-12 years old is the “optimal window for skill acquisition.” When the ADM managers ran back-to-back practices with a group of Squirts and then with a group of Peewees the next hour, it was obvious to all of the ADM managers that the Peewee group did not attempt to handle the puck or make plays as much as the Squirts. Instead, they focused on either trying to hit or avoid being hit in the competitive games. The Squirt group tried to handle the puck more and make plays because they weren’t thinking about being hit.

By delaying full and legal body checking until Bantams, the body-checking task force believes these players will benefit from two more years of developing skating, balance, strength, game understanding and anticipation, stick-handling, passing, receiving and shooting skills.

Last Saturday, Mancini discussed a teaching technique lost somewhat in today’s game. Mancini is former college coach and was the Edmonton Oilers’ director of player development before returning to USA Hockey, and we scouted together several times over the last few years and discussed one interesting aspect missing from checking that backs up USA Hockey’s argument in a roundabout way.

“One of the things that doesn’t get taught a lot is the concept of riding a guy out on the wall, getting his hands eliminated from the play,” said Mancini, who runs the ADM program in the Midwest for USA Hockey. “We see players hit puck carriers along the boards from behind, along their backs and shoulders and try to pin their bodies. No one legally eliminates the arms and hands to prevent the player from making a play. That is encouraged in the body contact philosophy at Peewee.”

That concept is at the center of the body contact versus body checking issue. USA Hockey does not want to eliminate contact. DeGregorio and Mancini were adamant in that. What they are doing is preventing players from getting hit by other players when, A, they have just released the puck and, B, when the player’s body/head is the primary objective of the hit and not gaining the puck.

Senior Director of Hockey Development for USA Hockey Kevin McLaughlin said “it is a skill development initiative first.” In an article by Eric Duhatschek in the Globe and Mail in Canada, McLaughlin explained that his organization’s research found that body checking at the Peewee level was significantly distracting players from improving their skills at a critical time in their development. Too often, he said, players of that age were either too focused on hitting or trying to avoid a hit.

Noted Mancini: “It showed we are doing a disservice to the skill guys because they are not being put in a situation to develop if they are getting the stuffing knocked out of them or being intimidated. We also are not doing a great job with the bigger, less-talented kids who are relying on their size because when it evens out later the skill guys will surpass them and make teams where the “tough guys,” if they don’t develop skills, will be pushed out at a pretty early age.”

Riley spoke with Pat LaFontaine on this issue in 2010. LaFontaine is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and former NHL player with the Islanders, Sabres and Rangers. A tremendously skilled player and former U.S. Olympian, he had his career cut short by concussions, one of the scariest suffered with the Islanders in the 1990 playoffs when he was leveled by Rangers defenseman James Patrick.

“From 11-13, players need to work on skills, spend more time on shooting, passing, game strategies,” LaFontaine told Riley. “These skills make young players better and they will enjoy the game more. In the 5-11 age groups they also should bump each other a bit. They can’t do much harm because they are all about the same size and speed.

“The emphasis at 12 now focuses on hitting when it should be about skills and skating. You can have a 12 year old with a growth spurt with a big size advantage. That can be dangerous against other players that haven’t grown yet and/or whose skills aren’t as developed.”

Duhatschek continued by quoting McLaughlin regarding a series of research studies into head injuries. McLaughlin cited a report conducted by University of Calgary researcher Carolyn Emery and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association as pivotal as well.

“What we find is that an 11-year-old brain is more susceptible to concussion,” McLaughlin said. “The 11- and 12-year-old brain is not cognitively developed to anticipate being hit. So if you can’t anticipate it and you can’t protect yourself, you’re putting yourself in a predicament to suffer a more severe injury.”

“We’re not taking all contact out,” McLaughlin said. “We want to get away from the intimidating hit, the idea of de-cleating the kid like they do in football.”

At the summit last weekend it was more or less explained that the idea is to be able to encourage and teach kids to use their body to separate a player from the puck but not eliminate him from the game. It’s an emphasis on “legal body contact,” that which occurs between opponents during the normal process of playing the puck.

Shanahan is no stranger to the tougher parts of the game. He mentioned to the committee that he played Peewee in a no-checking league and that the best defenseman on his team in that era was Bryan Marchment, who is as tough as they come in terms of NHL defensemen.

“With this proposal we are giving Peewee players two more years of skill development and awareness,” Mancini said during his presentation to NYSAHA. “We put kids in a very threatening position to subject them to hitting at age 11. Risk of concussion rises in that age group; that has been proven. Remember, there is no baseline testing for kids under age 11 — the brain isn’t developed enough to do the test.”

It is a skill development issue, a health issue and a quality of the game issue. Based on extensive medical research, voting yes to this proposal is a no-brainer if for no other reason than saying yes to the brain and its chances of getting to a developed state without being injured.

It is also a yes to further skill development, which at the NCAA and NHL level makes for a much more entertaining product.

It has nothing to do with survival of the fittest. This debate is being turned into a hockey Darwinism issue by the less educated hockey parent/coach/administrator who hasn’t read the vast amount of literature in this area.

I have a 9 year old who turns 10 in August. He loves the game. He is a decent player. He wants to keep playing. He will more than likely use his brains more than his hockey skills to make a living. The predatory player who wants to impress his dad with a killer hit in a Peewee game is what I fear most for my kids. I’ll add he is one test shy of being a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so this is not a knock on his courage or compete level.

Many parents feel similar regarding life-affecting hits at this age and will take their kids out of youth hockey for fear of serious injury. The landscape is full of them in hockey, football, lacrosse and other contact sports.

What do we want? A safe environment for kids to develop skills and a love of the game or a rash of new concussions because of some outdated code of toughness? When it comes to being a tough player, as many NHL scouts will tell you, “a kid either has it or doesn’t. You aren’t going to teach him to be tough.”

If he has it at age 11, he surely will have it at age 14. At that point he’ll be able to use it correctly, especially if the vote passes this weekend.