Better Safe Than Sorry

Advances In Rules, Equipment And Education Are Making For A Safer Game

Mark Stuart, left, and Colin Stuart, right, have earned a reputation for being hard-nosed but clean hockey players.Mark Stuart, left, and Colin Stuart, right, have earned a reputation for being hard-nosed but clean hockey players.

 

Nancy Stuart has been known to hide in hockey rink restrooms whenever one of her four children plays in a game that becomes a little too chippy for her tastes.

Her husband, Dr. Michael Stuart, the vice chair of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has dedicated a large portion of his career to sports safety initiatives as the chief medical officer for USA Hockey. So Nancy understands the dangers involved when the game isn’t played the right way.

From Then To Now


It’s been more than 10 years since USA Hockey Magazine took an in-depth look at safety in our game. From coaching education to advancements in equipment to programs designed to keep our players safe, we looked at all facets of the game. A decade later, we revisit these same issues to see how much progress has been made to minimize the risks while maximizing the fun on the ice.

“Hockey has given our family so much, and it’s such a wonderful game where you meet incredible people,” she said. “I just want my children – and anyone’s children, for that matter – to be able to enjoy the game as long as they possibly can. It just doesn’t make sense to me when someone suffers a senseless injury.”

Thanks to improvements in coaching, education, rule changes and equipment technology, the game continues to become safer for play- ers at all levels. And Nancy Stuart doesn’t find
herself hiding in rink restrooms nearly as often.

The Stuarts’ three sons – Mike, Mark and Colin – have all played professionally after their collegiate careers, and daughter Cristin skated at Boston College. Very early in all of their careers, their parents placed a heavy emphasis on playing the game the right way.

“We learned from the beginning that, if you’re going to play the sport, first of all you’re going to have fun doing it and work hard at it,” said Mark Stuart, a defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets. “But, just as importantly, you’re going to respect other kids. You’re going to treat your teammates and other people around you with respect. Our parents did a great job of instilling that in us.

“There have been times when we’d get a little fired up, because we’re all really competitive. That happens with everybody. But we were taught not to cross that line between being competitive and being dangerous.”

 

While the risk of injury will always exist in a contact sport like hockey, tremendous strides have been taken to make the game as safe as possible and fun to play and watch.While the risk of injury will always exist in a contact sport like hockey, tremendous strides have been taken to make the game as safe as possible and fun to play and watch.

 

It is a fine line, especially when the game develops at such a high rate of speed.

“I play with an edge, and I’m a very competitive person,” said Colin Stuart, a defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres. “But at the same time, I like to think I read the ice pretty well and I understand when an opponent is in a vulnerable position where, if I were to hit him, he’s going to get hurt. That’s where you have to peel back and avoid hitting the guy.

“My parents didn’t stress the safety aspect as much as playing the game with respect. But, pretty much, the two go hand-in-hand.”

The American Development Model, developed through a partnership between USA Hockey and the NHL, places a heavy emphasis on teaching youngsters to play the game with respect. By coaching players to behave responsibly on the ice, the initiative aims to prolong the enjoyment of players at all levels.

Tweaking The Rules

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada took a bold step this spring by adopting a zero tolerance policy for contact to the head. Any contact to the head, either intentional or accidental, will result in a penalty; the severity of the penalty will be left to the discretion of the officials.

“It’s a lot like the way the high sticking penalty is called,” Dr. Stuart said. “Even if you accidentally get your stick up and clip someone, it’s automatic. The players understand it’s an automatic penalty and they adjust their game accordingly. Obviously, if it’s a more vicious hit, the penalty will be much steeper.”

In the last 10 years, the national media has cast a significantly brighter spotlight on hits to the head and resulting concussions. The topic gained momentum with the National Football League and spread to other contact sports, such as hockey.

“We have a much better understanding of the risks involved with concussions now,” Dr. Stuart said.
“Coaches, players and parents are much more in tune with the signs of concussions and the consequences.”

The zero tolerance policy on head contact appears to be gaining steam and could soon reach the game’s highest governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation.

“President [Rene] Fasel has always said from the beginning that there’s no such thing as a clean hit to the head,” said Murray Costello, a vice president of the IIHF. “One of the worrisome things in all our consultations was to get head injuries out of our game. There’s no room for it. But we have to come down hard and fast in a zero tolerance way.”

USA Hockey also raised the minimum age for body checking from 11 to 13 based on a Mayo Clinic study of leagues that allow checking at a younger age. The study found those leagues to have more than triple the rate of major injuries, including concussions, over leagues that begin body checking at an older age.

“Penalties are in place for a reason: to discourage players from a particular behavior,” said Dr. Alan Ashare, who has dedicated more than a quarter of a century to safety issues within USA Hockey.

“Personally, I’d love to see the day when checking from behind penalties and penalties for hits to the head are never called because players aren’t engaging in that type of behavior.”

Equipment companies continue to make advances in protective gear that keep players safe.Equipment companies continue to make advances in protective gear that keep players safe.

 

 

Assist From Aerospace

Protective equipment has evolved from the days of yesteryear, when innovative children strapped old magazines to their shins and headed out to the pond. Equipment manufacturers are constantly researching and designing new products to enhance performance and protection.

And they turn to unlikely sources for inspiration.

Laura Gibson, product manager for Reebok-CCM Hockey, said her engineers frequently attend raw material trade shows looking for ideas to improve equipment. Reebok-CCM engineers have tested materials commonly used in the aerospace and automobile industries, and they often draw inspiration from the innovations found within the ever-evolving golf industry.

“There have been times when we’d get a little fired up, because we’re all really competitive. That happens with everybody. But we were taught not to cross that line between being competitive and being dangerous.”

“It’s amazing how much equipment has evolved even over the past five years,” Gibson said. “We’ve developed a shin guard, for example, that absorbs 60 times more energy than shin guards with a traditional design mainly because it has an innovative liner. When you work with different density foams or plastics or composite materials, you can see a noticeable difference in comfort and durability.

“We also have a lot more price points now than we did 10 or 15 years ago. Obviously, along with that comes a lot more levels of protection. The guy who plays recreational hockey isn’t going to need the same equipment as a guy playing pro.”

But, unfortunately, along with that comfort and durability comes a heightened sense of security from the wearer.

“No matter how safe we make the equipment, the players are going to push it to the limit to a certain extent,” Dr. Ashare said. “It’s the same as football, where you’ll hear people say, ‘Remove the facemasks or the helmets, and there will be less hits to the head and the game will be safer.’

“Well, we used to play hockey without helmets, and I don’t think that’s the answer. The important thing is that the equipment is used properly and not as a weapon.”

Players have become bigger, stronger and faster over the last 10 to 15 years, and equipment manufacturers have been challenged to maintain the pace. So, a lot more goes into the process of developing new gear.

“There is a lot more testing and rigorous research and development than there was even five years ago,” said Steve Jones, the director of global marketing and brand strategy for Bauer Hockey.
“The demand for protection in all sports – not just hockey – is at an unprecedented level, and that transcends to the manufacturers. The demand is for safe equipment, so it’s up to the manufacturers to make it as safe as possible.”

Bright Future

There’s little question that the game is headed in the right direction, thanks in large part to the symposiums, coaching clinics and educational initiatives that are keeping safety issues on the front burner.

“We have made a lot of progress,” Dr. Stuart said. “But, at the same time, we have a long way to go. You’re not going to totally eliminate the risk of injury in ice hockey. But, based on all the information that’s out there, we can focus on prevention and make a big difference.”

Nancy Stuart looks forward to this fall, when her niece’s 4-year-old son begins playing the game. And, when she becomes a hockey grandma sometime down the line, she knows the game will be a safer version than when her children first started.

“My niece will never have to go hide in the bathroom during a game. I’m sure of that,” she said. “With all the information out there to teach kids how to play the game the right way, there’s no question the game will be a lot safer.”

Issue: 
2011-08

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