This is the time of year many kids take to the ice for the very first time. New hockey moms and dads crowd in change rooms helping kids get in their gear and tying up skates. Then off they go to watch from the stands as their little one shuffles around the ice, chasing a puck they can’t keep up with.
Inevitably, this always ends up with a few kids falling creating a domino effect until several kids lay helplessly starfished on the ice waiting for a friendly coach to pull them to their feet. And as new hockey parents watch this comical display, many of us worry about our kids getting hurt.
Is Hockey Safe?
Youth hockey is in fact a quite a safe sport. Kids start off slow by simply learning to skate and then using a stick as they get older. Hockey is a very well-supervised sport because it is complex to learn. It’s a safe, steady progression. Not to mention the levels of protection hockey equipment provides.
While hockey is a leading cause of sport-related injury reported to Canadian emergency departments, soccer actually accounts for the largest proportion of injuries in Canada. Youth hockey players visited the ER less often than kids who play football, soccer, basketball, or wrestle.
Risk of injuries
At the younger levels, hockey injuries are very low. However, they do increase as the kids become more proficient in the sport while getting bigger and faster. Youth players are more likely to sustain an injury in a game rather than during practice. Playing in a league with body checking is associated with up to three times increased risk of all game-related injuries.
And as players move into rep programs such as AAA, AA, A, the risk increases. This is because players are stronger, shoot harder and are more aggressive. It isn’t just boys hockey that can be rough. The girls’ game at the higher levels is very physical despite body checking being prohibited.
Types of injuries
Minor hockey players are most likely to be injured in the upper extremities (23%-55%), followed by spine and trunk (13%-32%). Lower extremity injuries account for 21%-27% of injuries.
Male hockey players are are more likely to experience fractures and shoulder injuries than female players (27% vs. 8%) due to body checking. Girls on the other hand, sustain more soft tissue injuries such as sprains.
The biggest concern for hockey still remains concussion risk. Head injuries account for 7%-30% of injuries. But the people who oversee the hockey have been working on creating rules to prevent this. The Ontario Government, for example, has enacted Rowan’s Law that brings awareness and sets guidelines for the treatment and management of concussions.
The memories of typical hockey player missing teeth of the past are long gone — at least in minor hockey. Mandatory full facial protection and mouth guard usage reduced the risk for these types of injuries to virtually zero.
Body checking or body contact?
Firstly, let’s differentiate between body checking and body contact.
Body checking is where the defensive player purposely uses his upper body to hit the opposing player with the puck with force.
Body contact is a player’s defensive move where rather than hitting the other player, they place their body by leaning into the player, skating, angling, or stick checking to remove the puck from the other player.
Body contact is present in all levels of hockey. Girls hockey at the rep level has lots of body contact and it is up to the referees to regulate it before it crosses to body checking.
Body checking is generally only allowed at the rep level where coaches take the time to teach this skill and how to use it to minimize injury. Body checking has been eliminated completely below the U14 level in Canada and the United States. Many are advocating raising the age even higher, while some believe the age should be lower so kids are taught to hit —and take a hit — correctly before there is a large size and strength discrepancy due to some kids hitting puberty before others.
Although referees provide strict enforcement, body checking is the main cause of injuries, either from direct contact or from being checked into the boards or another player.
Hockey is a great sport but like all sports, is does have some risk. However the risk is very low in the younger years. Mostly little kids sustain and few bumps and bruises from falling.
Now stop worrying Mom and Dad … it’s time to have fun on the ice!