The American Academy of Pediatrics wants to recalibrate hitting in hockey. If your son isn’t at least age 15, the AAP thinks he’s too young for body checking. He’s probably too young for a whole host of other potential dangers in 2014 America, too, but the AAP’s policy statement, issued on Monday, focused solely on hockey, checking, and the issues inherent when the two collide.
Someone else, I suppose, can issue the policy statement for the ideal age to engage in texting as a contact sport, but that’s another load of broken bones for another day.
The AAP, which issued an identical position on hockey and body checking 14 years ago, felt emboldened to do it again, fortified almost a generation later by a bunch of hockey-specific numbers crunched in Canada over the last 10 years. Maybe this time, now that our puck-lovin’ pals up north have provided the data, we’ll heed the whistle.
In short, the numbers show that kids get hurt playing hockey (nothing new or revelatory there) and that hitting causes a lot of the damage (shazam!).
Hockey is a physical sport, played on a rock-hard frozen surface, with razor-sharp skates, sticks, and chunks of rubber that, when launched with enough force, could pierce an armored military troop carrier. It’s a danger-filled game and one must assume a certain amount of risk, reasonable or otherwise, the first day he or she tugs on double runners. Reasonable being the Gray’s Anatomy area of the sport.
Dr. Alison Brooks, a co-author of the AAP’s position that was published in the academy’s journal, “Pediatrics,’’ noted to Reuters Health that the new data “provide a strong scientific evidence base that body checking drastically increases risk of injury, severe injury, and concussion.’’
A separate study undertaken in Minnesota, also published in “Pediatrics,’’ reported the number of hockey-related injuries (168) recorded in a trauma center there over the course of 1997-2013. Roughly one-quarter of those injuries to athletes ages 18 and under were to the brain, either in the form of concussion or intracranial bleeding. A total of 38 percent (64 of the 168) of all injuries were related to checking or fighting. The numbers included injuries to 26 girls. Body checking is forbidden in women’s hockey.
For all of that, the AAP believes checking should not be introduced to boys until age 13, and then only on an instructional basis for two years before it becomes part of their game. Further, the AAP suggests that only players who are tracking toward the elite end of the sport — be it, say, the college, junior or professional ranks — engage in the process.
Personally, I think that’s asking a lot of a 13-year-old boy to determine at the dawn of puberty whether: 1. hockey will be his sport of choice or 2. he’s ready to start the checking process. I’d guess most 13-year-olds, especially the many who begin playing hockey as pre-schoolers, see themselves as the future sure-shot captain of the Bruins or Blackhawks or Flyers. Of course they’re fast-tracking. Everyone is fast-tracking. Why else get up at 4 a.m. on a holiday weekend to be at the rink for a 5 o’clock faceoff?
As for the rare kid who isn’t sold on the “elite” track, maybe he’s opting out of what eventually could be the greatest sports experience of his lifetime. Seems a tough call to make when you’re still only allowed to attend PG-13 movies. Those R flicks are often loaded with violence.
As things stand today, USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body here, sets the age of hitting at age 13. Prior to 2011-12, it was age 11, which shows, in part, the two sides are gravitating toward the same neutral zone of common sense. That’s encouraging.
Frankly, if I had a coach telling me that my son was ready for contact at age 13, while the doc insisted on 15 as the more prudent choice, I’d go with the one wearing the white coat rather than the one in the white socks.
I don’t mean that to offend good coaches, of whom there are many, but I’ve watched hockey closely now since the mid-1960s, and I don’t need a pile of ER stats or a Surgeon General’s warning scribbled on the side of every stick for me to understand the emphasis on hockey today is on speed and hitting. They are its meat and potatoes. Everything else, including even passing and shooting, is mere parsley. Too much of the game is seek and destroy, the domain of the fastest and boldest. Finesse, oh, that’s nice, but hardly necessary.
As a dad, I also know a young teen’s legs are too often way ahead of his brain on the game’s overall learning and readiness curve. No doubt, some of these boys will be fine for contact by age 13, while others will need at least two years, even more. Some, no matter what their mental readiness or body type or physical gifts, will never be ready for contact. They may just not like to hit or be hit, or perhaps never grasp the technique. It’s not for everyone, which can be horribly disappointing for kids who do embrace the many other skills in the game that aren’t rooted in sheer speed and brute force.
For now, USA Hockey is holding the line at 13. In fairness, it should be given time to digest the AAP position paper. Dave Fischer, USA Hockey’s longtime spokesman, said Thursday that the AAP position will be discussed at this week’s annual congress in Colorado Springs, bringing together some 600 USA Hockey members from around the country.
The AAP is not in the business of writing prescriptions for governing bodies, leagues, hometown teams. All it can do is talk to the docs, sift through the data, analyze a sport not through its wins, losses, and popularity, but through its DNA of injury and pain. Really all anyone can say for certain is that waiting two years can’t hurt.