It's not about taking the hitting out of hockey, but about making sure the hitting is done properly and ensuring that trainers are being proactive about head injuries.
Dr. Tyler Fletcher has a passion for sports medicine and specializes in concussion assessment and rehabilitation at his clinic, Cobblestone Medicine and Rehab in Paris, Ont.
Fletcher said the proliferation of concussions in ice hockey isn’t about the sport being more violent than others.
“In fact, there are tons of sports out there way worse than hockey for body contact,” he said. “Look at rugby, a linebacker in football or the sport of lacrosse as examples. But those sports don't have near as many concussions as hockey.
“It comes down to teaching kids properly and enforcing the rules.”
One of his patients, 18-year-old Ryan Vandewiel, has suffered three concussions. Two of them came on the ice during the same hockey season in 2012-13.
The first wasn’t from a hit. Vandewiel, who played midget hockey for the Paris Wolf Pack in the Paris Minor Hockey Association, lost an edge, slipped and hit his head on the ice.
The second, however, came toward the end of the season when a player on another team elbowed him in the back of the head.
“I was out cold,” Vandewiel said. “It was a bad one. I couldn’t do anything.”
And the effects lingered to the point where Vandewiel was forced to drop out of Paris District High School for the rest of the year.
“I had to drop out of my second semester of Grade 11,” Vandewiel said. “I should be done school now, but I have to go back for another semester.”
The concussions, which Fletcher said were made worse by occurring in relatively close succession, gave Vandewiel a whole host of symptoms.
“Some days I’d feel great, but then I would start doing something – and it could be anything – and all of a sudden (headaches) would hit me,” Vandewiel said. “To this day, I still have a problem with brightness. Bright lights just kill me.”
As a victim of a “cheap shot” that cost him half a school year, Vandewiel said removing legal bodychecks would do nothing for such circumstances.
“It’s an attitude problem with some players and that’s not something you can prevent by taking away hitting,” Vandewiel said. “One of my concussions was at an end-of-the-year tournament for third-year midget players. Guys are going out to get suspensions because they know they are never going to have to serve it. There will always be those players who just want to hurt somebody.”
Vandewiel said, if anything, he thinks the age for hitting should be lowered.
“It’s better to start at a younger age,” he said. “If you teach the kids while they are young, they are learning to hit when they are too small to do any real damage to each other. It's dangerous to get bigger kids out on the ice who have never hit before.”
Fletcher is a realist when it comes to hitting. As a doctor, he knows that his patients would be much safer if there were no hitting in hockey. But since hitting isn’t going anywhere when it comes to the professional side of the sport, Fletcher wants to see better enforcement of the dangerous hits and more pro-active tracking of head injuries.
“Kids aren’t penalized for their problems to a severe enough degree,” he said. “In other sports, if kids break the rules – with dangerous implications – there are stiff penalties. Hockey needs to get rid of headshots.
“In rugby and other sports, the hitting is done on the body and you don’t see the same number of head injuries. Getting rid of headshots would go a long way to solving hockey’s concussion problems.”
A proper bodycheck cannot only be a thrill for fans, it can be an on-ice event that doesn’t put either player at risk of injury. But Fletcher said training players to hit properly – and training players to avoid hits – takes time.
“Not learning proper hitting technique until an older age is going to be a problem in the future,” Fletcher said. “More accidents will happen because of off-centre hits and high hits. If hitting is going to stay in the sport, players need to learn proper technique.”
He said equally as important as proper hitting technique, is the ability of smaller players to escape those hits.
“If players are learning how to hit at a younger age, they learn how to adapt and get away from the bigger guys,” Fletcher said. “If they are not taught until an older age, they are never going to learn in time. You don’t have as much experience to adapt.
“If hockey waits too long to introduce hitting, the big players are going to really do damage.”
Proper treatment and assessment and safe return-to-play protocol is the other prong of Fletcher’s belief to make the game safer. Fletcher sings the praises of the ImPACT test, which stands for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing. The test – which consists of varying shape, number and word questions that measure visual memory, processing speed and reaction time – is quickly becoming a standard for concussion protocol.
Players take the test when they are known to be healthy during the offseason. The result gives doctors and rehabilitation specialists a baseline from which to compare the player’s cognitive functions following a head injury.
“The test baseline we have is specific to that kid’s cognitive function,” Fletcher said. “They may not be the best student, but we have a record of what their normal is. It allows us to keep them off the ice until they get back to that baseline they were at.”
Another patient of Fletcher is 20-year-old Brodie Smith. Smith is playing in his third year of junior hockey with the Midwestern Junior C Hockey League's defending champion Paris Mounties.
The one on-ice concussion he has suffered was on a clean check by an opponent, but it didn't change his outlook on hitting.
Smith believes teaching kids while they are young prevents problems later on.
“Players who haven’t grown up hitting in hockey don'’ know how to do it,” Smith said. “They hit the head because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. They don’t know how to hit a smaller player safely.”
Hockey Canada voted in 2013 to change the rules and remove bodychecking from hockey in peewee and all lower levels of minor hockey for which it is the governing body.
Now, minor hockey players don’t run into legal body contact until they are at the bantam level.
Though he’s only had one concussion, Smith would admittedly feel a lot better without hitting in hockey. He’s had his shoulder dislocated more than half a dozen times, not to mention chronic ankle issues.
But he wouldn't want hockey to be any other way.
“That’s what hockey is,” Smith said. “You hit in hockey. That’s it.”