Changes could minimize concussion risk in youth hockey - KTIV News 4 Sioux City IA: News, Weather and Sports

Changes could minimize concussion risk in youth hockey

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KTIV) -

From major league baseball, to the NFL and the NHL, concussions are a hot topic these days. Now the discussion over safety has moved from pro level to the youth level.

But what exactly is a concussion? A concussion is an injury to the brain that results from an impact to the head. It's an injury that affects the connections in the brain and how the circuits run. The circuits involved in thinking and feeling can be disrupted.

Now, the brain is considering to still be developing through adolescence and into the early 20's. But, could a concussion at a young age could affect brain development? "We all suspect that an injury to the brain at a younger age may have more of an impact than an injury at a later age," Dr. Mathew Johnson said. "We do know that younger athletes can take longer to recover than older athletes. But, unfortunately we don't have any definitive information to know that."

Recently, with new knowledge of concussions, on the ice, USA Hockey looked at moving the age at which players can "check," from Pee Wee level with 11-12 year olds, to the Bantam level, 13-14 year olds. The goal was to make youth hockey a safer, more fundamentally sound game. How dangerous is youth hockey?

It's hits like these, that USA Hockey is looking to eliminate, creating a safer, more skill based game at the youth level. And the governing body used a study in Canada to do just that.

In June of 2010 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a studied by Doctor Carolyn Emery that studied the rate of concussion in pee wee hockey, in a non-checking league in Quebec, Canada and a checking league in Alberta, Canada. 

Doctor Emery and her staff concluded players in checking leagues were three times more likely to suffer from a concussion, severe injury and severe concussion. "We wanted to look at, is introducing hitting at our current environment of youth hockey, is that impeding the player development at the key critical years 11-12 year old hockey players, is it impeding their player development? Kevin McLaughlin, Senior Director for Hockey Development at USA Hockey, said.

With Dr. Emory's study, along with the new education on concussions and observations, in January of 2011, the Board of Directors, proposed the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program, moving legal body checking in games to the Bantam age level (ages 13-14), while eliminating it from Pee Wees (ages 11-12). Six months later the proposal passed and it was implemented September 1 of the 2011-2012 season.

At the local level, with the Siouxland Youth Hockey Association, the change received mixed reviews. "Initially it was negative reaction, thinking of my childhood." Brett Austin said. "Analyzing it as a parent and as a coach, it was very exciting. We got to see that kids got two extra years in their primary development skill years where they're able to learn body protection, puck awareness, body awareness so they weren't getting slammed from behind." "I don't think it's going to hurt the game. A lot of coaches do," Dave DeGree said. "But, a lot of them are worried about winning. You have to teach fundamentals, and then it'll all come together."

LeGree, who has been coaching for nearly thirty is happy to see the rule change, after watching one of his own players suffer a concussion after taking a big hit two years ago. "The kid that had a concussion on my team two years ago, nothing was taught to him about how to take a check. They're standing straight up. When someone came at him, naturally you're going to go down," LeGree said. "My firm belief with checking, no matter what group I've had, checking isn't about knocking somebody for a loop or knocking them into the boards. checking is about playing the body and taking the person off the puck. That's what checking is about. It's not about hurting someone one or going after someone."

Now, it's not accurate to say USA Hockey is taking contact away at young age levels. In fact, with the progressive checking program, USA Hockey is introducing body bumping beginning with mites, allowing players to be more fundamentally sound and prepared prior to entering checking level hockey. "It's going to allow the players to develop more skill and as we know, more skill increases confidence. When their confidence increases, the passion for the game increases," Austin added. "You see kids who can't build their skill because they're being knocked out from a body check every the second they touch the puck they're getting knocked out."

With the new rule, coaches anticipate a change of the youth hockey landscape, especially in the next four to five years. "If you learn it a younger level, I think it makes for a safer game, possibly," Brant Mozak said. "If you know a body check is coming, you get a little closer to the boards, a lot of that will prevent taking a big hit. It's mechanical. Knowing how to take a hit, that's the biggest thing. Where as, previously, you didn't have to concentrate on that because the kids have been taught it three to four years before hand." "Hockey is a safe sport. if you played it in the past and were nervous about your player moving up to body contact level hockey, now is the time to come back and enjoy the sport," Austin added. "It's never been safer."

For more information on the progressive checking model, or USA hockey's shift towards a safer game, go to USA Hockey's website.

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