KINGSTON — Bryson McCulloch, 18, suffered his fifth concussion during a high-school hockey tournament in January, from what he calls a clean and “legal” open-ice bodycheck. It was his third hockey-related concussion; he had racked up the other two playing football.
McCulloch was sidelined for about five weeks to recover. He realizes he would likely have had fewer concussions if checking were banned from high-school hockey, yet he prefers the traditional rules of the game anyway — bodychecking included.
The five-foot-eight, 160-pound student played forward last season at the varsity level for Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School. Especially for a player who isn’t physically large, he says, “Getting hit is part of the game. The fact I was concussed was just what happened. You can't be scared.”
Growing awareness around concussion safety has led to a province-wide debate about what role, if any, contact sports should play in high-school athletics. Last month, Ontario passed Rowan’s Law, which mandates concussion safety measures for young athletes (the law is named after Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old Ottawa-area rugby player who died after suffering a brain injury in 2013).
With regard to high-school boys’ hockey, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations voted this month to keep bodychecking legal. A high school in the southern Ontario region had brought forward a motion that, according to several coaches who were present for the vote, would have banned intentional contact in boys’ high-school hockey (as is already the case in girls’ hockey). Shamus Bourdon, manager of sport for OFSAA, says that while the meeting was “confidential in nature,” the “bottom line of the motion was to remove intentional bodychecking from boys’ hockey.” The motion failed to carry.
OFSAA declined to share the name of the school that brought forward the motion, or which athletic associations voted in favour of it.
It’s not the first time OFSAA has held such a vote. Three years ago a similar motion was voted on and defeated. But for now, bodychecking is the rule — with exceptions. Some of the regional athletic associations that organize high-school sports have banned intentional contact, and other, larger school districts run both contact and non-contact leagues. This has led to a patchwork of rules across the province.
McCulloch and the rest of the Holy Cross Crusaders were in a position this past season to play hockey with checking and without. Locally, they compete as part of the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association (KASSAA), where the boys’ hockey league is non-contact, meaning referees will call a penalty if they see intentional bodychecking.
But after winning the local championship, Holy Cross qualified for the Eastern Ontario Secondary School Association tournament, where bodychecking is legal. They won that division too, qualifying them for the province-wide OFSAA championships — where, again, bodychecking is legal. The Crusaders adapted to the change of rules, and ultimately won a silver medal.
Owen Bauder, a 14-year-old Grade 9 student and reserve player on the Holy Cross team, says it was difficult adjusting to playing contact hockey in the playoffs after a regular season without it. “My first game [with bodychecking], I was quite nervous,” he says. “I’m 14 and some of the guys are 18. There’s some big kids out there.”
Larger school boards — in Toronto and Ottawa, for example — have enough competitive hockey players to offer junior (Grade 9 and 10) and senior (Grade 11 and 12) leagues. However, in many regional conferences elsewhere in the province, students of in all four high school grades compete together. The result is a wide range of player sizes. As Bauder observes: “I’m five-eight, 125 pounds. Some guys are six-four, 230. It’s a big difference. You’re basically going out there and trying not to get hit.”
Is there room for both ways?
While the Ontario high-school hockey community debates the future of the sport, privately organized leagues have changed the rules to ban checking among younger players — and there’s some evidence that the change has had a positive effect on their health.
In 2013, Hockey Canada changed its rules, mandating that bodychecking cannot be introduced until the bantam level (ages 13 and 14). A group of researchers at the University of Calgary studied the impact of the change on concussions and other hockey injuries. Their study, released last March, found that banning bodychecking at the peewee level (ages 11 and 12) led to a 64 per cent decline in concussions, and a 50 per cent decrease in overall injuries. The authors of the study say the rule change resulted in 4,800 fewer concussions annually in Canada.
Whatever the evidence may say, the culture of contact hockey for teenage boys is deeply ingrained. Players, coaches and other enthusiasts won’t change their attitudes overnight.
Scott Buffam, who for the last 15 years has coached hockey at Renfrew Collegiate Institute in Renfrew, says he has watched the bodychecking debate flare up with increasing frequency in recent years, but he feels hockey is being unfairly targeted as a concussion risk. He is not convinced that evidence exists to show hockey is any more dangerous than other contact sports.
“In my personal experience coaching hockey, I've witnessed very few situations that ended with the diagnosis of a concussion,” Buffam says. “I like to think that we hold high standards in high-school hockey … A lot of energy is being put in to ensure player safety.”
Buffam says the awareness of brain injuries and their long-lasting impact has already acted as a catalyst for change in the sport — from the NHL down. “Hockey deserves a lot of credit. The game has evolved. Headshots, checking from behind, those are way down. Even those big, open-ice hits that you still see in the NHL, are almost completely out of the high-school game,” he says.
And yet, removing bodychecking from the game goes a step too far for Buffam, at least for now. “It’s a hard thing for us hockey folks. This is the game we’ve grown up with, and had positive experiences with,” he says. “As people who love the game, we do feel somewhat threatened by the non-contact hockey movement. But we would like to think we can have kids play the right way, with contact.”
Peter Morris, a sport co-ordinator with OFSAA, agrees that it’s premature to impose an outright ban on hitting in high-school hockey. “We’re educators. Of course we don’t want to see our kids get hurt.” To avoid injuries, he says, referees are much stricter than they used to be. “What used to be acceptable is not tolerated.”
Instead of a ban on bodychecking in high-school hockey, Morris would rather see non-contact leagues become an established alternative. In certain regions of the province, high schools offer both versions of hockey; in a perfect world, he says, students would get to choose. “We need to find a way of making it work with both.”
‘It’s a no-brainer’
Mark Reilly coaches hockey and teaches at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Brockville. For the last three seasons, the Leeds and Grenville Secondary Schools Athletic Association, of which St. Mary’s is a part, has prohibited intentional bodychecking in boys’ hockey. (Leeds and Grenville and Kingston are the only associations in eastern Ontario with exclusively non-contact high-school hockey leagues.)
In Reilly’s experience the non-contact version “is a way better game,” at least in a high-school setting, where players can exhibit a major disparity in size. “For me, it’s definitely taken a weight off my shoulders. I was often more worried about keeping my guys safe rather than scoring goals.”
Tony Clarke, coach of the Holy Cross Crusaders, would be happy to see intentional contact eliminated in high-school hockey, despite his team’s recent success in a contact tournament.
“I think at the high-school level it shouldn't be in the game,” Clarke says. “To me, it's a no-brainer. Otherwise, you're setting these kids up to get hurt.”
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