On any given night, at kitchen tables and dining rooms around the United States, there are discussions taking place between parents and their children who want to play hockey. The pros and cons are pored over with cost and time commitment near the top of the list. Mom and Dad are likely thinking primarily about safety, though. That’s a concern for all parents with a child in sports.
If those parents are operating on the perception that hockey is both dangerous and violent, safety might find itself under “Con.” With the seemingly high rate of injuries in the NHL, hockey’s most visible league, it’s not hard to understand.
However, when one looks at some of the clinical research and data being collected, that perception is proving to be unfounded, at least at the youth level.
Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer and co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Center, agrees.
“What I tell everybody when I give my lectures on ice hockey injuries, is that hockey is actually a very safe sport at the youth level,” Stuart says.
When compared against other youth sports, the data backs up Stuart’s statement. That’s not to say hockey is without risk, but by comparison to many youth activities, hockey has no more injuries than other sports, and in many cases may have fewer.
Recent data analysis by Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization dedicated to preventing injuries in children, suggests that a lower percentage of hockey players visited emergency rooms in 2011 and 2012 than kids who played football, soccer, basketball or wrestled.
Using data collected by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, Safe Kids shared that four out of every 100 basketball players in the country between the ages of 12 and 17 visited the emergency department in 2011. Soccer was estimated to have three injuries per 100 players, while football was the highest of all sports with eight per 100.
Comparatively, two out of every 100 hockey players suffered injuries that led to an ER trip.
Going off of the following year’s data, of approximately 1.35 million children seen in emergency departments in 2012 due to sports-related injuries, only around 12,700 were due to injuries suffered in ice hockey.
Stuart cautions not to take that emergency room data as being completely reflective of what is happening in the sport, but this analysis provides an interesting point of reference for comparing hockey with other sports.
So what is it that makes youth hockey so safe by comparison?
“Kids are wearing full equipment, full face masks and we just don’t see that many injuries,” Stuart says of youth hockey. “Injuries we do see are actually quite mild like bruises, sprains and strains.”
In addition to equipment, hockey is not a sport that can be played without a certain level of instruction first, which enhances the safety factor.
“Hockey is not something that you’re just thrown into a game,” Stuart says. “You need to learn how to stand on skates, skate and then stop. It’s a gradual progression.
“That comes back to coaching. It’s important [for players] to learn body control and on-ice awareness. If we teach that, it makes our sport safer.”
Body checking not being allowed in the younger levels of youth hockey also helps keep injury risk lower.
Equipment, education and rule enforcement are inherent in making the game safer at the youth level, according to Stuart.
The perception that hockey is a dangerous sport still persists, however. With the NHL serving as the point of reference for most parents who are not already associated in some way with hockey, it’s not hard to understand. That said, the instance of injury is dramatically higher in the professional ranks than that of youth hockey.
“What I tell everybody when i give my lectures on ice hockey injuries is that hockey is actually a very safe sport at the youth level.”
—Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer and co-director of Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Center
“The risk of injury increases according to the age level of participation,” Stuart explains. “There’s a very small risk in Mite and Squirt. It goes up in Peewee and Bantam, but when you get into high school and Juniors and then pro, it’s almost an exponential increase.”
While the sport at the youth level is generally safe, concussions in hockey remain a growing concern at all levels.
“I don’t think we can hide from the fact that the risk of concussion is highest in football, hockey, lacrosse and soccer,” Stuart says.
“There’s a perception that there is an epidemic, and maybe there is, but there’s also merit to the fact that we’re better at recognizing and diagnosing concussions.”
With a renewed emphasis on concussion awareness, USA Hockey, under the direction of Stuart and Dr. Alan Ashare, chair of USA Hockey’s Safety & Protective Equipment Committee, has adopted a concussion management program.
“The important thing with a concussion is to recognize it and handle it,” Ashare says. “If a player is concussed [or suspected to have a concussion], they have to be taken out of the game or practice at that time.”
Education is of “critical importance” for coaches and parents in making the game safer, according to Stuart. Monitoring players’ exertion and knowing the basics of identifying concussions or any injury is something every coach should have a handle on as the first line of defense.
“There’s a culture of safety and that is based on education,” Stuart says. “Players, coaches and parents should all be educated in concussions and Heads Up, Don’t Duck (USA Hockey’s program to help prevent spinal cord injuries).
“Secondly, [for the players] it’s sportsmanship and mutual respect, which starts at home. We want to shape our athletes into responsible citizens who have a sense of sportsmanship and have respect for their opponents.”
Everyone involved in hockey has a role. If parents and coaches stay educated and vigilant and the players are given proper instruction, the sport will remain not only fun and competitive, but also safe.
Chris Peters is a freelance writer based in North Liberty, Iowa.
Photos By USA Hockey Magazine Archives
Heads Up, Don't Duck As Important As Ever
As a Peewee hockey player in 1996, I recall gathering with my teammates in the lobby of Homewood-Flossmoor Ice Arena in the Chicago suburbs to watch a video about “Heads Up Hockey.” With the continued preaching of my coach, who happened to be my father, I never forgot that if I was falling or sliding into the boards to pick my head up.
Now in its 17th year, USA Hockey’s Heads Up, Don’t Duck program hasn’t changed much since my own Peewee playing days, but its message is one that remains vitally important for all players today.
Dr. Alan Ashare, chair of USA Hockey’s Safety & Protective Equipment Committee, helped found the Heads Up, Don’t Duck program to create awareness of how to prevent paralyzing spinal cord injuries in hockey.
With several recent high-profile instances of spinal cord injuries in hockey, there’s no shortage of reminders of what makes this program so important.
USA Hockey recently produced a new, brief educational video to help spread the message of Heads Up, Don’t Duck featuring Olympians Jenny Potter and Ryan Suter. It also includes many examples of how a player should prepare for a fall or slide into the boards.
According to Ashare, making contact with the boards even at walking speed can result in a severe spinal cord injury if the player’s head is in the wrong position. When a player picks his or her head up, the neck is more flexible and better absorbs the impact.
“People always tell me it’s a normal reflex to duck your head going into the boards,” Ashare said. “No, it’s a learned reflex. That means you can learn yourself another reflex.”
As important as the program is, awareness of it among players, coaches and parents remains a stumbling block.
Both Ashare and Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer, feel strongly that every coach, player and parent should watch the Heads Up, Don’t Duck video and it should be something that is continually taught to players.
“Everybody has to know about the program. There’s got to be buy-in. It has to come from the coach,” Ashare said.
“Coaches are one of the primary ways of decreasing injury. They have to explain to players, no matter how you go into the boards, it is your responsibility to keep your head up.”