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May 27, 2013

Banning Bodychecking Was Easy; Hockey Canada Faces Bigger Decisions Ahead

On Saturday Hockey Canada voted to ban bodychecking at the peewee level nationwide. The move - always a controversial debate - means youth in Canada will not begin playing full contact hockey until the age of 13.

Hockey Canada was under a lot of pressure to reconsider bodychecking at this level due to recent studies of injuries - particularly concussions - at this age level. The empirical data really made this a necessary and obvious decision, with support coming from all provincial associations except Saskatchewan.

Quebec had already prohibited bodychecking until bantam hockey (age 13). A study comparing head injuries between Quebec and Alberta showed peewee players were 3 times more likely to suffer a head injury when bodychecking was allowed. That study convinced Alberta and Nova Scotia associations earlier this month to eliminate bodychecking at the peewee level beginning next season. 

For those who are concerned about how this may affect Canada's ability to develop elite players for the National Hockey League - don't be. Elite players will always be elite. In fact, allowing players to develop skating and puck skills for an additional couple of years may make Canada's elite players that much better. The long term effect on the National Hockey League product should be a positive one.

Hockey Canada needs to applauded for this player safety initiative, but they were likely motivated by more than just the concern of concussions. Declining enrolment in youth hockey is Hockey Canada's most serious concern. High costs, fear of injuries and violence, and new-Canadian families not familiar with the game are leading reasons for the decline.

In 2012 Hockey Canada had about 572,000 youth players nationwide, down nearly 200,000 from peak years. Some studies suggest we could lose another 200,000 players in the next decade. Meanwhile, youth enrolment in the United States - which has long banned bodychecking at that age level - is skyrocketing.

The real big-picture bottom line is Hockey Canada needs as much participation as possible in order to continue to develop the best hockey players in the world.  Declining enrolment in youth hockey is the biggest threat to the future of our great game. 

Injuries scare parents and young players alike. Perhaps this decision will allow for more players to enjoy the game longer as they will not be subjected to the physicality of the game until the age of 13. This decision was almost easy as it was obvious and necessary.

Future decisions on how  Hockey Canada overhauls minor hockey in this country will not be so easy.

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