As the father of four hockey-playing children (three boys and a girl) I have spent more than my fair share of time cheering my kids on from the bleachers. And as the chief medical officer for USA Hockey, I have enjoyed working with others to help make the game safer by advocating better equipment and more effective medical practices.
Just as important as any piece of equipment or training technique is how we approach the game. Whether you’re a player, a parent, a coach or official, we each have a responsibility and the ability to make our game a safer and more enjoyable experience by following a few simple concepts.
Keep It Fun
Hockey is a challenging, but inherently fun sport. People fall in love with the game and it often becomes a lifelong activity. One of the best ways to keep it fun is to decrease the pressures put on young players.
“We should focus on the “pond hockey” elements of fun, skill development and camaraderie.”
There are too many games and too much intense competition too soon in this sport. We should focus on the “pond hockey” elements of fun, skill development and camaraderie.
Our own kids were very much in love with hockey growing up, but each year before the start of the season I would purposely ask them: “Are you going to play hockey this season?” They would look at me like I was crazy, but we wanted them to know that it was their choice, not our expectation.
De-emphasize the future and concentrate on the present, which has to do with fun, skill development and friendships.
Keeping It Clean
Existing rules, if honored by athletes and coaches and enforced by officials, will be effective in keeping the game clean. A rule is a rule, and a violation should be called consistently.
In football, if you interfere with a wide receiver in the end zone, regardless of the circumstances, you are going to get a flag. But sometimes in hockey, penalties are ignored in overtime. If you break the rules, you honor the referee’s judgment and pay the price.
Sportsmanship and mutual respect are also critical. Respecting your opponent means never delivering a hit to the head, never checking from behind, never using your stick as a weapon and never leaving your feet to give a check. You can be a fierce competitor while respecting your opponents on the ice and can be friends off the ice.
Unfortunately, our hockey culture doesn’t always promote this philosophy. The only time NHL players are allowed to shake hands is after a team’s elimination game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the NFL, you will see college friends and former teammates interacting after every game.
Keeping It Safe
Players should always avoid performance enhancing drugs that are dangerous, illegal and not as effective as many people think.
Good eating habits can eliminate the need for supplements. Training and conditioning are also critical to staying healthy.
Preseason and in-season conditioning focused on the key muscles involved with the skating stride can be very beneficial. For example, the most common muscle strains involve the hip and groin. Research shows balanced strength and flexibility of the lower abdomen, groin and thigh muscle groups can help prevent these injuries.
Properly fit and good quality equipment is also a key to safety. Helmets that don’t fit right or aren’t strapped on properly will not be very effective.
Remember that you should never deliver a hit with your head and never drop your head near the boards. You should always practice Heads Up Hockey.
Good luck next season. Have fun, play hard, play smart and play fair.
(This piece originally ran in the September 2008 issue of USA Hockey Magazine.)