There is growing concern surrounding concussions in youth ice hockey, spurring some changes in many youth leagues and concerns that reforms do not go far enough.
“In hockey, you can certainly get head injury to the head just as bad as in football, for sure. And people move way faster than you could ever move in football because you’re on skates,” said Dr. Richard Wennberger, a neurologist with Toronto Western Hospital in Canada.
Concerns about concussion risks in major league and youth sports leagues started with the NFL, which was forced to change rules surrounding professional football play after findings of by the medical community of CTE, a degenerative disease, in former players. A class-action lawsuit by former players led to a multi-million dollar settlement with the league.
Last year, 29 former National Hockey League players filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the league, claiming that the league failed to protect them against the risks of repeated head trauma during their careers. More NHL players later joined the suit, with nearly 100 now suing their former employer and accusing them of not protecting them from traumatic brain injuries.
Recently, as part of the lawsuit investigation, hundreds of emails between NHL officials were unsealed that suggested some NHL officials knew about the potential hazards of the game and were debating whether to cut down on fighting, according to media accounts including The New York Times and The Globe and Mail.
The concussion discussion has moved to young players who are in the early stages of their hockey careers.
Parents, coaches and the medical community are looking at concussion risk among young hockey players, who start on the ice in some places as young as 8 years old.
According to an annual report by USA Hockey, which oversees club and high school play, there were 7,329 youth hockey players during the 2014-2015 season. More than a third – 2,764 – of players are 14 years old or younger.
The report does not contain the numbers of players who sustained concussions and the specific numbers are not readily accessible to the public.
Experts say the younger the child, the higher the concussion risk. Especially in a sport where falling on ice, hitting the boards or being struck by a puck is common.
Younger ice hockey players have a significantly longer recovery time than post-adolescent athletes, according to a January article in The Journal of Pediatrics. Researchers recommended more physically mature youths be discouraged from playing with pre-adolescent players.
“Their brains aren’t fully mature yet and while they’re still in the process of undergoing changes, that disruption to the brain functionings may have longer lasting effects,” Dr. Wennberger said.
In a concussion, a player’s brain is slammed against the skull, leading to symptoms such as nausea, headaches and dizziness. Long-term effects of traumatic brain injury can include memory problems, personality changes, language impairment and interference with the ability to plan and solve problems. Medical autopsies on the brains of some former professional football players showed CTE.
Ice hockey leaves the players vulnerable, experts said.
“Whether by accident or more often by design, there can be some very high speed and impactful collisions,” Dr. Wennberger said. “And you can get hit in the head with the puck going 110 mph.”
Hockey revolves around intense physicality. Players skate at high speeds while fighting for the puck, using sticks, hands, and their body for any advantage they can get.
Body checking carries the biggest potential for injury. It involves a defensive hockey player disrupting the offensive athlete when he or she has control of the puck, sometimes with the stick and other times with the body. The aggressive motion can lead to players shoved onto the hard surface of the ice or along the boards on the wall.
Medical experts said body checking is especially risky for young people, whose brains, bones and muscles are still developing. And, the Journal of Pediatrics study noted, 13 to 18-year-olds grow at different rates. The bigger the player, the bigger the hit, the more potential for injury.
Some parents and medical experts say more reform is needed to protect young players. This includes preventing smaller players playing with big players, requiring annual concussion tests in youth club leagues and not allowing body checking at any age.
“What’s the point of ever having bodychecking in youth hockey, because 99.99 percent of kids playing aren’t going to make the NHL,” Dr. Wennberger said.
Still, Dr. Wennberger sees the benefits of learning how to safely check. He has noticed that if the kids aren’t taught how to properly body check at a younger age, they are more reckless when playing in the older divisions.
“People were skating into the boards without looking at what was coming behind them,” Dr. Wennberger said.
Some parents said allowing body checking at a younger age allows players to learn the sport safely.
“What they’ve also done is they’ve allowed more body contact at the younger ages without hitting,” said Tony Gabriele, a parent of a teen player. “They’re teaching kids properly as younger kids so when they get to that age, it’s not a free-for-all, where they’re trying to send kids to the hospital.”