Forty percent concussion rate from illegal hits: What can we do to stop it?

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

Respect in Hockey: Respecting Our Referees

Yelling is no longer the only thing youth sports officials have to be concerned about

It’s a disappointing development for the game we all love. Hot on the heels of the OMHA’s recent launch of its “Respect in Hockey” video campaign, two referees were assaulted in Howell, New Jersey after a high school hockey game.

“The dispute started during the game,” said the release from the Howell Police Department. “Following the game, one parent approached two referees regarding the dispute. At this time a physical altercation began and a [fourth] subject became involved in the altercation. The four subjects involved in the physical altercation sustained minor visible injuries (This included red marks and bruising to facial area, bloodshot eyes, bruised hand) and complaints of pain. Two of the involved subjects refused medical attention and the other two subjects were transported to Jersey Shore Medical Center.”

We hate to see it, but hostility towards officials has been on the rise lately. Even referees in organizations as high as the NHL and NBA are speaking out about it. Not surprisingly, the number of officials in youth hockey across Canada is dwindling.

Let’s take a minute to think about what that means to our kids playing hockey today: If there are no referees, there is no youth hockey.

At the Clarington Recreational Hockey League, we’re about skills development–not just for our players, but for our officials, too. It’s imperative we remember that some of our referees are new to officiating. They are still learning in their roles, and they are going to make mistakes – just as anyone learning a job will. We see it as our job to provide them with the opportunity and guidance they need to grow into the kinds of officials we want to see out there on the ice. But without respect for their authority today, do we have the right to expect them to stick around long enough to be tomorrow’s leaders?

We recently shared a post on our Facebook page from the Farmington Youth Hockey Association that addressed yelling at referees. In it, they said, “We’re focusing on getting our kids to learn the game and when you … yell at refs, you are teaching them to “defy authority.” – Yelling at a ref in a hockey game is no different than talking back to a police officer during a traffic stop. It’s not a lesson to teach our kids.”

Respect is the collective responsibility of everyone involved in hockey. That means players, coaches, bench staff, parents, friends and fans. At no point should anyone involved in hockey feel that they are in anything other than a safe and enjoyable environment in which the game can take centre stage. That is the fundamental code which everyone who loves hockey should live by.

Feature image credit: mark6mauno

Creativity and Shinny: What Minor Hockey Might Be Missing

CaptureIs minor hockey worth it?

This was a question asked by the Toronto Star in a 2013 article which addressed the cost of minor hockey in Canada, and the statistical outlook for kids who hope to make it to the NHL.

Being a recreational hockey organization, our initial response was a resounding YES! For most of us who enjoyed a hockey childhood, we remember cold winter days spent on the pond until it got so dark we couldn’t see the puck anymore. We remember the smell of the ice first thing in the morning for those early games, and that twenty-kid pileup on the goalie after a well-deserved win.

Is minor hockey worth it … seriously?? [Insert snort of derision here]

However, with such a provocative question put forth by the Star, we naturally wanted to find out what their opinion was. So we read the full article …

Ahhh, okay. They’re looking specifically at minor hockey, as opposed to our recreational type of program here at the CRHL. And the writer does make some fair points with regards to expense, demographics, and margins of success — all points which don’t apply to us in quite the same way.

We did, however, find one suggestion particularly intriguing. The Star argues that with such a heavy focus on regimented, intensive training, minor hockey associations throughout Canada are producing players who are less creative than their forbears.

Photo credit: Robert Taylor

Well that’s quite a glove slap to minor hockey! But one the Star, and many other industry experts, defend with statistics and live examples. More than simply substantiating such an accusation, they go so far as to offer a solution to this alleged tangible problem. And that solution is …

Unstructured, unregimented, unscripted … shinny??

Yes, shinny. Apparently this free skate style of hockey for the sake of the game alone offers something that intense training cannot. According to the Massachusetts Hockey association (Mass), when there is “freedom from clocks and walls and officials and coaches and whistles and lines … unrivaled joy beckons. There is also a by-product from this lack of structure: Player development for young skaters.” Mass points to Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, whom they quote as arguing that creativity is a major part of developing high-end players.

Triple-A coaches far and wide are beginning to recognize this shift in player development also. The star reports one coach as saying, “Unlike Guy Lafleur or Wayne Gretzky, [players today haven’t] logged thousands of hours playing shinny. Instead they log thousands of hours in minivans; a game that can be a three-hour commitment when factoring in commute times and dressing time, but it only yields 10-17 minutes of ice time for the player.”

Interesting … and not inaccurate, when one stops to think about it. Ken Dryden, in his book The Game, writes that, “It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices … in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills.”

To further this suggestion, there is an interesting anecdote on the Herb Brooks Foundation website:

A generation ago, Johnson High School in St. Paul was a Minnesota hockey powerhouse … Its success wasn’t due to better coaching, facilities, or innate athletic ability of East Side kids. Instead, it was the countless hours of unstructured practice by the Phalen Park rink rats. Hockey was part of the culture on the St. Paul’s East Side. Kids went to the rink/pond to meet their friends and have fun playing hockey. The game belonged to them.

Photo credit: jpellgen [modifications: cropped]
As a recreational hockey association, of course the CRHL firmly believes that hockey practice, with regimented drills and a focus on skills, is an essential part of hockey development. But it’s only a part. With Canada being so strong on hockey culture, it’s safe to say that most of us can agree a little shinny wouldn’t go amiss. In between the early morning power skating, the practices, the games and the tournaments, perhaps we do need to remember to carve out some time for our kids to get out there on a pond, or a free rink, and just have at it.

Their game. Their way.

It’s food for thought, anyway.

Featured image credit: Jamie McCaffrey

What Youth Sports can Learn from Jose Bautista’s Bat Flip

The bat flip heard round the world. It has been the subject of countless memes, been played and replayed on sportscast highlights, and it has flooded social media. It’s even been carved onto pumpkins. Time will tell if “the bat flip” will be one of those defining moments of Jose Bautista’s career, like Babe Ruth’s “called shot” was in game three of the 1932 world series.

Photo credit: Zack Chisholm (edits: photo cropped)
George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. Photo credit: Zack Chisholm (edits: photo cropped)

It has also been the subject of intense media criticism, much of which accused Bautista of attacking the integrity of baseball. Sam Dyson, the pitcher for the Rangers who gave up the game-changing home run, insisted, “Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more … [He] is a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game … It shouldn’t be done.”

Bautista’s official rebuff of such accusations came in the form of an eloquent article he wrote on November 9th for The Players’ Tribune titled “Are You Flipping Kidding Me?” In it, he writes:

There’s no sound in the world like the crack a baseball makes on the sweet spot of my maple Marucci. You blink on contact. The immediate roar of the crowd lifts your sights to see where the ball is going. Imagine the feeling of watching it land in the seats. How would you feel? What would you do?

There was no script. I didn’t plan it. It just happened.

I flipped my bat.

If social media is any measure of popular opinion, then it would seem that Toronto stands behind their Joey Bats and his infamous flip. And it’s one of those moments in sports history that can teach our youth a lot about sportsmanship. Helping our players develop sportsmanship and character, after all, is one of our overarching goals as an organization. As Youth Football Online aptly states, “Character development is just as relevant as learning the game … It’s of utmost importance to be respectful of your teammates and opponents.”

Photo credit: Wayne Stadler

Anyone who loves hockey knows that it is an emotional rollercoaster of a sport. It’s not indifference that motivates our players to get out there on that ice game after game, practice after practice, and give it their all. It’s passion. Celebrating achievements—that perfect goal, that beauty pass, that incredible save—is evidence of that passion.

There is a fine line, however, between celebration and showboating, and it’s not always the easiest line to define. Even the experts don’t seem to agree on where that line exists, as the arguments on both sides of “the bat flip” show us. When we’re dealing with kids, communication is essential to helping our young athletes develop an understanding of the difference between the two.

This is a sentiment echoed by Al Adamsen, trainer for the Positive Coaching Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area. When asked by a youth coach how to address showboating, he suggests, “[The] key to achieving your goal is communication. Communication is often thought of as a one-time event. It’s not. As John Wooden once said, ‘It’s not what you teach. It’s what you emphasize.’ This could not be more true when you’re communicating with opposing coaches, administrators, players, parents, etc.”

There are two sides to the coin here, and communication needs to be had on both the Moose and the Queen sides (pardon the nod to our Canadiana roots). First, players need to understand that showboating is not a reflection of good sportsmanship. That one’s a given. But second, and less obvious, is that players need to understand that celebration isn’t always showboating. Jose Bautista highlights this point in his article when he goes on to say that his bat flip “wasn’t out of contempt for the pitcher. It wasn’t because I don’t respect the unwritten rules of the game. I was caught up in the emotion of the moment… Those moments are spontaneous. They’re human. And they’re a whole lot of fun.”

Photo credit: Keith Allison

When it comes to helping our children develop character in the game of hockey, communication is key. Sam Dyce’s accusation that Bautista is being a poor role model is only a justified one if we don’t help our players, at whatever level they may be in their youth sports career, understand and appreciate the proper place celebration holds in the sport of hockey.

Recognizing the appropriate level of celebration and, just as important, respecting the right of the opposing team to celebrate their own achievements—that is the mark of a mature player.

Photo credit for featured image: Keith Allison

Scheduling Ice: A Look At What Our Board Members Do

Schedules. Waiting for the hockey schedule is like waiting to open birthday presents – a lot of excited hockey players are bouncing on their blades to find out when they play … Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the posting of the schedule is pretty much the official kick-off to the season. And that’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?

Preparing the schedule is a lot harder than one might imagine. Just ask Paul Jefferson, one of our CRHL veterans. He’s been a member of the board of directors for more than thirteen years. His son has gone through the league as a player, and is now coaching one of his own teams. Yet Paul comes back year after year to volunteer his time to this fantastic organization, with no more motivation than the knowledge that “it’s for the kids.”

In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, Paul is busy at home matching up the teams and slotting them in for the entire year. “I end up putting in a lot of my free time,” he admits. “It’s gotten better over the years because I get better at it each time. You know, you get quicker, and you know what to look for. But still, it’s a real time commitment.”

There are many factors that go into building a schedule that people may not realize. For one, the Clarington Recreational Hockey League is just one of several organizations vying for the same ice time. Figure skating, power skating, speed skating, public skating, rep hockey, adult leagues, tournaments – everyone wants ice. With only so much rink space to go around, the municipality has to portion out the region’s limited facilities so that everyone gets what they need. This makes scheduling difficult for Paul, who has a finite portion of ice to work with for all of CRHL’s divisions and teams. And to ensure that teams are given the opportunity to book outside tournaments throughout the season, the schedule for the entire year has to be done at the start to allow players, coaches and parents to manager their own  commitments.

It may also surprise you to learn that Paul regularly goes to battle with the city about whether to give ice back or not … of course, we’re teasing when we say that. Understandably, the municipality does not want organizations keeping ice it doesn’t need, and is anxious to know how much ice time has been returned so that it can be redistributed. It’s Paul’s job to make sure he holds onto ice time for as long as he can (within reason) to ensure that only the right amount of ice, if any, is given back. It’s also Paul’s job to answer to the municipality when they want hard figures that he’s not yet ready to give. That’s a big ask of any volunteer, but he does it because, as he says, “It’s for the good of the league. When our credo is ‘every kid gets to play,’ we need to make sure we have the ice. We do it for the kids, first.”

At least some things remain constant. Paul is used to working with Orono and Newcastle, who are separate organizations that schedule their own practices and games, and has become accustomed to merging multiple schedules into one. Also, the younger divisions will never be on the ice in the later time slots, so he knows to work the older divisions into those spaces first to open up as many age-appropriate ones as possible. With these and other consistent factors, Paul has built up quite a refined process for putting the schedules together. Of note, it’s a process that has taken years to develop.

At the end of it all, Paul is confident in the schedules he builds. “I do make mistakes,” he admits. “Sometimes you get it done, and you don’t realize a team is missing a practice. So there is that element of human error. But if I know something’s wrong, I’ll fix it. At the end of the day I have to accept that you can’t make everyone happy, but I always aim to make as many people happy as possible.”

Paul Jefferson, Ice Scheduler, CRHL

Paul Jefferson is just one of the many dedicated volunteers at the Clarington Recreational Hockey League spending their free time to open up opportunities like local hockey for our kids. Thanks, Paul, for all you do to make sure our kids can play.

Op Ed: Let’s Drop the Semantics on the Participation “Award”

Photo credit: VoiceIT Magazine

This summer, the unfortunate comment was very publicly made by two-time Superbowl champion James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers that his children would not be allowed to keep their participation awards.

He posted on his Instagram account: “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

It’s sparked a lot of debate, and to be fair, Harrison received notable praise for his comments. For example, Global News suggests that, “Critics of participation awards might borrow a page from Top Gun, and say “there are no points for second place.” These awards, they argue, simply reward failure and turn kids into under-achievers who think you just have to show up to succeed.”

It’s a viewpoint that is likely fuelled by an infamous statement made by University of Toronto psychology professor Gary Walters, who claimed that parents today have prioritized building their children’s self-esteem by rewarding everything. He says, “So every five-year-old on the soccer team gets a participation medal whether they were competent or not. [This has helped] contribute to the developing culture of narcissism and ‘look at me’-ishness.”

Thankfully, there’s enough criticism of this and like viewpoints to even out the debate. Forbes sports writer Bob Cook points out, “To me, the bigger problem is not giving kids trophies—it’s making trophies out of your kids. The real damage, I think, comes from parents who are pushing their children too hard towards a scholarship or pro career, and let their identities and family dynamics become wrapped up in that pursuit … When it comes to participation trophies, in my experience, kids know the score.”

Photo credit: Huffington Post

And Disney’s Babble blog suggests that participation trophies are more than just trophies for participating, citing that they are instead “symbolic of a season well played, of giving up three days a week to practice and play games, of effort and sweat and injuries.”

Fair point. And I may be alone in this, but I think it’s high time we drop the semantics. Call it an award, call it a token, call it what you want. In the end, we all know what it is—including our kids. The participation medal, trophy, pin, hat, or whatever form it comes in, is not a reward for “doing nothing,” whatever James Harrison and his ilk might suggest. Instead, it’s a reward for our children having passed a milestone in their lives. It’s a memento of the teammates who have become friends, and the coaches who have become role models. And it’s a token of the things our children have done in those precious, fleeting years that are childhood.

Thirty years down the line, when our young men and women look at those mementos, they won’t see an empty award. They will see reminders of a life lived well, and timeless memories made.

Isn’t that, after all, the point of youth sports in the first place?

B2BOur guest blogger today, Katie LeGrand, is a freelance writer, content marketing enthusiast and CRHL hockey mom.

Visualizing Success for Young Athletes

Hockey, as any player will tell you, is about far more than just getting out onto that ice and attacking the puck like your life depends on it (no matter what it might look like on TV during Hockey Night in Canada). Anyone who plays the sport knows there’s a skill involved – not just motor skills like being able to skate and stick-handle, but the skill to utilize your teammates to complete the play, to monitor their positions, and even to carry out pre-determined strategies for overcoming your opponents’ combined skills.

In short, there’s more strategy to hockey than there might seem from the stands. To our Clarington Thunder players, and to all hockey players, as your youth hockey career progresses and as you mature as a player, strategy will become more important to your game. And strategy is as much a mental skill as a physical one.

This week’s blog post is about visualizing your game, and it is inspired by multi-sports counselor and mental skills trainer Anthony Lanzillo, who advocates for youth athletes to “visualize the play.”

Practicing your drills is more than just getting out there on the ice and doing them over and over again. It’s about seeing them in your head, seeing yourself doing them step by step. When you’re visualizing your drills, you want to imagine the feel of each step, where you’re looking on the ice, and where you are supposed to be in relation to your teammates. It’s as important to commit your drills to your mental memory as it is to commit them to your physical memory (also called muscle memory).

Here are some additional things you want to be doing when you visualize the play:

  • Identify one or two positive feelings you’re experiencing as you see yourself successfully performing your role.
  • Identify key moments of each drill: where’s your stick; where are you looking on the ice; which opposing player are you covering?
  • When you’re done visualizing, identify one or two more of your own personal strengths which you bring to the play. Is it speed? Puck control? Diversion?

What practicing these visualizations and mental rehearsals do is help you to be more composed and confident when it’s game time. As Anthony Lanzillo says, you are creating a mental imprint of how you want to perform. By doing this, you will be better able to deal with any distractions or negative influences at game time.

And with parents and fans of our players as passionate about hockey as we know they can be, there will definitely be distractions at game time.

After all, what’s a local hockey game without a good old cow bell?