There is no pastime that unites this vast and diverse country under one national identity quite like hockey does. Canadians see hockey as a way of taking the curse of six cruel months of winter and turning it into a blessing. The rugged and resilient nature of the Canadian spirit is reflected in the signature physicality of our game.
Like many cultural institutions, changes in hockey are not always well received. From overcoming the stigma of wearing a helmet in the 1960s and ’70s to the crackdown on illegal hits and contact that has come to define the post-lockout NHL, the evolution of hockey has always had it detractors.
Earlier in May, the governing hockey bodies in Nova Scotia and Alberta became the second and third provincial associations after Quebec to ban bodychecking in the 11- to 12-year-old age group, known as the peewee division. These decisions were influenced in part by a recent University of Calgary study that shows that allowing bodychecking at the peewee level more than triples the risk of injury for the young athletes. Now Hockey Canada has decided to adopt the ban country wide.
While concerned parents have praised the decision, others have viewed the changes as an attack on the game itself. Comment sections on websites like TSN and CBC are filled with people bemoaning the loss of bodychecking at the peewee level. Popular comments draw comparisons to NHL issues such as players receiving concussions due to not being taught to keep their head up as a kid. Concerns about the decline of the hard-nosed brand of Canadian hockey are a common theme.
This initiative meant to protect the long-term health of children playing hockey in local rinks has triggered a debate on the state of professional hockey. While making sweeping comparisons between the state of professional and minor hockey may be tempting, the main issue must not be ignored: kids are sustaining severe head injuries, and these injuries are scaring them and their parents away from Canada’s treasured pastime.
Bodychecking proponents have made the mistake of putting the needs of an extreme minority of players that will play hockey at a highly competitive level ahead of the vast majority that won’t. They often argue that bodychecking needs to be taught at a young age so that players can learn to make and take a hit safely in the future. But considering that all but the most elite players will be playing in non-contact leagues by the time they are young adults — if they are even playing at all — some important questions are raised. Why should all players risk injury to learn a skill most won’t end up needing?
Hitting will always have a place in hockey. When the players’ skills and awareness have been sharpened enough and their bodies have matured to take the punishment, bodychecking becomes an exciting addition to hockey. The young players will just have to wait a few years to decide if they want to engage in that aspect of the game.
In the meantime, the Canadian identity will be just fine. As science has come to understand the consequences of bodychecking in minor hockey, the true Canadian spirit has shone through. We may be a rough and tumble nation of Canucks, but we don’t need to risk concussing our kids to prove it.