Gauntlet Q and A: Dr. Carolyn Emery

By Riley Hill

On May 25, Hockey Canada Board of Governors voted to ban body checking in peewee hockey. Reactions across Canada have been divisive, with some applauding it as an important step in preventing concussions in children, while others view it as the removal of a critical aspect of the sport. 

Hockey Canada’s decision was based off a growing body of evidence that suggests that body checking in peewee hockey results in a significant increase in injuries for young players. One person who conducted such research is University of Calgary kinesiology professor Carolyn Emery, whose 2008-09 study Risk of Injury Among Youth Ice Hockey Players concluded that players in Alberta peewee hockey leagues, which allowed body checking, are three times more likely to suffer injuries than those who play in Quebec non-contact leagues. The Gauntlet recently sat down with Emery and got her views on hitting among young players in Canada’s favourite game.

The Gauntlet: Tell me about the findings of your 2008 study.

Carolyn Emery: We did a study with over a thousand kids in Quebec and Alberta in peewee ice hockey. We compared the injury and concussion rates in the two provinces. The only difference was that in Alberta, peewee body checking was allowed, and in Quebec, it was not. We found a four-fold greater risk of concussions and a three-fold greater risk of injury in Alberta. In the context of the [Hockey Canada] policy change, we can estimate from research that removing body checking from peewee level hockey will result in a reduction of over 5,000 injuries and over 1,500 concussions in Canada this year. 

G: There are a lot of people on both sides of this issue. How have people responded to your research?

CE: Clearly there are more people on the side of informing a policy change to delay body checking until bantam. Certainly, you hear all sorts of arguments on both sides. I think that we can congratulate Hockey Canada for making an evidence-informed decision. Their decision is clearly based on the evidence that supports a change that will significantly decrease the risk of concussions and injuries in young ice hockey players and hopefully increase participation as a result.

There are some arguments that support the requirement to teach the skill of body checking early. We have evidence from a 2008–09 study in bantam hockey to show that the two years of early body checking experience in Alberta is not preventative of concussion and injury risk in bantam players. So actually, the evidence shows otherwise to that argument. 

In addition, the skill of body checking is a four-stage progression, where the early stages include skills like angling, stick checks and body contact. All those things are allowed at a young age, so certainly to develop the skill of body checking those skills need to be incorporated into development early on. 

G: I’m sure if you did a similar study on bantam leagues, you would also find a significant increase in injuries related to body checking. Why draw the line at peewee?

CE: Well actually, the highest rates of concussion are in peewee ice hockey players. In terms of looking at that in bantam, you’re absolutely right, you will see a greater risk associated with leagues that allow body checking. The thing is that in non-elite levels of play in bantam in Quebec, body checking is not allowed — they only body check in the more elite levels of play. 

Arguably, there’s some discussion moving forward as to whether non-elite play in bantam and midget should go with a model similar to Quebec, Ontario and certain associations in British Columbia that only allow body checking at the more elite levels of play. 

G: Why would you only keep body checking in the elite levels? 

CE: I would argue that with 95 per cent of kids in hockey, we’re training them to play in beer leagues at an older age — we’re not training them to play at an elite level. The argument goes that yes, you need to start allowing body checking at a certain stage in elite levels so that individuals are prepared for that in games. But arguably, those kids who are playing in non-elite levels of play are likely not training to play in junior leagues or national hockey leagues.

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