On Wednesday, London Knights winger Max Jones was ejected from a game against the Owen Sound Attack when he threw a blindside hit to the head of forward Justin Brack. Media outlets reported on it, calling it a “vicious hit,” and there was no shortage of comments from the public. They were, unfortunately, polarising.
At the suggestion that Jones may have diminished his chances of becoming a first-round selection at the upcoming draft, Rico07 said, “How does he hurt his stock? If anything he moves up the rankings. The kid is 6’3” imagine what a few summers in the gym will do.” To which another respondent commented, “Hmm… it’s difficult to imagine from where this Jones kid learned to deliver such cheap shots.”
We know that contact is a part of the sport of hockey. It’s why players lug so much protective padding to and from the rink from the time they first step onto the ice at the Mini Watt age (and why there’s a boom in the minivan industry thanks to hockey families). But there’s a difference between clean hits that are permissible, and ones that can leave permanent, lasting damage to a player. We don’t need to bring up the career ending hit on Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore by Vancouver Canucks’ Todd Bertuzzi to illustrate that point.
A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program recently concluded that more than 40 percent of concussions in youth hockey are the direct result of illegal hits.
Forty percent! That’s a staggering figure. More worryingly, younger players are at a higher risk.
Anthony Kontos, lead author for the Pittsburgh study, suggested that training kids to obey the rules and enforcing penalties may reduce the number of concussions. He says, “Better enforcement of existing penalties for illegal hits – especially those from behind when players are less able to protect themselves – may help to limit concussions in youth ice hockey.”
It may. But a major contributing factor, we’d argue, is the fact that our youth players are watching illegal hits like the Max Jones one this past week on television. Just about every kid who plays youth hockey dreams of playing for the NHL one day. The players they see on TV are their role models, and their actions are, for better or worse, emulated on the ice at all age groups.
In the OHL, body contact isn’t introduced as an acceptable play until Peewee, and with the 2013-2014 season, body checking was moved back an age-group to Bantam. According to the OHL website, “Education will remain a priority focusing on the 4-Step Checking Progression, which begins the first time a young player steps on the ice. This progression emphasizes the practice of positioning, angling and stick checks followed by contact Confidence and Body Contact which is taught at the later stages of athlete development.”
So while penalties may reduce the number and severity of illegal hits, it’s really up to coaches, parents and the general youth hockey community to explain to these young players the consequences of illegal hits and discourage them from being thrown on the ice at the local house league game. Just like we’re teaching our children to be media savvy with the prevalence of age-inappropriate imagery and messaging, we hockey-loving adults need our young players to be able to comprehend what goes on during those televised professional and semi-professional games (legal, appropriate or otherwise), and how it’s not appropriate for youth play.
Forty percent is a frightening number. With all the benefits we know youth hockey offers, let’s do our part to make sure that they are not outweighed by the risks.
Featured image photo credit: jhderojas