TORONTO (Canadian OH&S News)
The good ol’ hockey game might not be that good after all, a recent study suggests. Canada’s pastime has historically been a rough game — but new research is calling for changes to hockey rules as a means to reduce the risk of injuries on the ice.
Published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in December, “Effectiveness of interventions to reduce aggression and injuries among ice hockey players: a systematic review” linked harsher penalties and rule changes to the reduction of aggression and injuries amongst hockey players — from junior leagues all the way up to professional franchises.
Researchers concluded that strict penalties and limiting or eliminating body checking reduced the rate of injuries on the ice three- to 12-fold. As well, the study also looked into educational programs and incentives for good sportsmanship, but found that rudimentary changes were the most effective method in mitigating aggression.
Their report could not have come sooner, said Michael Cusimano, the study’s lead author. Cusimano works as a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“It says something about the culture of things going on at all levels of hockey right now that needs to change to make the game safer,” Cusimano explained.
“In terms of their own safety, those players in the NHL have the highest rates of injury of any players in hockey,” he said. “Because they’re getting the highest rates of injury, it would make sense that because they want to reduce their occupational health risk, they should look clearly at rules and enforcement of rules that have significant implications for players that would make player safety better.”
Cusimano cited the infamous Todd Bertuzzi incident as one particularly telling case study. In 2004, Bertuzzi — then playing with the Vancouver Canucks — violently checked Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore from behind during a game. Moore suffered three fractured neck vertebrae, facial cuts and a concussion — and has not played since.
Cusimano said that his team looked at 50 games prior to and after Bertuzzi was criminally charged, and discovered that such severe penalties indicated a reduction in aggression on the ice for games following the attack.
According to the NHL rulebook, there are strict regulations in place to protect players. For instance, Rule 48: Illegal Check to the Head dictates that “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
Changes to national game not expected soon
Despite being welcomed by Hockey Canada, the governing body for minor and national teams in the country, fundamental changes to the way the game is played is a far way off.
Paul Carson, the vice-president of hockey development, explained that the organization already has methods in place to limit injuries and concussions on the ice, such as a zero-tolerance policy for head contact.
“It’s multi-factoral,” Carson said. “There are so many issues at play. Risk compensation, you look at the aggressive play, risk-taking behaviours and the feeling of invincibility because of hockey equipment. In the women’s program, where there is no body checking but there is incidental contact and certainly aggressive play, there’s also a high rate of injuries.”