The Death of a Canadian Institution: Barely on Life Support!
February 22, 2010 - by Emile Therien
Over the last few weeks,
many Canadians have been glued to their television sets following the progress
of Canada's hockey teams as they embarked in search of the gold medals at
the Vancouver games.
Win or lose, Canadians
have been overjoyed, and rightfully so, year in and year out with the successes
enjoyed by the country's hockey teams at the international level. The roster
of those teams consists of men and women with outstanding skills, which far
exceed the norm. They consist of an elite few in a pool of literally hundreds
of thousands of players. That said, this international success for years has
long masked the problems confronting minor hockey in Canada: injuries, primarily
due to body checking, registration and participation costs, the gapping and
unfair age differential (advantage for players born in January, February,
March) , elitism, lack of equal opportunity, and the apathy and unaccountability
exhibited by Hockey Canada and the hockey establishment. To deny these problems
exist is to deny reality!
Allowing young hockey
players to body check at such a young age as young as 11, along with the other
factors, as the statistics clearly indicate, is driving young players away
from the game. The main reason kids play any sport is for fun and recreation.
Hitting and the risk of serious injuries, including concussions, remove the
motivation. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 8,000
people were treated for hockey related injuries in the 2002-2003 season. Based
on this rate, more than 25,000 people were injured across the country. In
93 cases of the 8,000, the casualty was admitted to hospital, 15 directly
to critical care. It is shocking to hear that enrolment in Hockey Canada approved
teams is currently about 550,000 players, down more than 200,000 from its
peak. Any other business/industry experiencing such a large decline in market
share would either be bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy! As this pool
of talent continues to dwindle, it will have a serious impact on the quality
and talent level of those who will go on to represent Canada internationally,
to the disappointment of Canadians. Simply put, liability and insurance issues
aside, many parents are just not exposing their children to the perils of
In correspondence received
from Hockey Canada on the issue of body checking, it is stated, "this
issue will never go away nor should it". From this, one can easily conclude
that the high injury rate caused by body checking in minor hockey is acceptable
to Hockey Canada, a publically funded organization, and will continue unabated
and 'unchecked'. There is a solution to this major public health and injury
prevention issue, namely, the age at which it should begin and the zones on
the ice surface where it should be permitted. In Quebec, players do not bodycheck
until bantam, and even then it is only introduced at the elite levels of the
game. Peewee, ages 11 and 12, is when bodychecking begins in Alberta. A Canadian
study found that peewee players in Alberta were 2.5 times more likely to get
hurt and 3.5 times more likely to suffer a concussion than the peewee players
tracked in Quebec. The joint University of Calgary, McGill University, and
the University of Laval tracked 2,200 peewee players from both provinces for
the entire 2007-2008 season to measure injury frequency.
The decision to allow
bodychecking in minor hockey is unquestionably jeopardizing this wonderful
sport and favorite pastime by turning it into our most dangerous game. This
practice borders on child abuse. It certainly flies in the face of public
health, safety and injury prevention; it trumps medical science, commonsense
Concerned with the injury
factor, a group of parents took on the challenge to save the game, establishing
the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League (TNCHL). The league provides competitive,
high-level skilled hockey without intentional bodychecking. Rather than supporting
these efforts, according to the league’s director, Hockey Canada has declared
the TNCHL an ‘outlaw’ league, imposing sanctions on any child who chooses
to participate, including suspensions.
For the record, bodychecking is prohibited in women's hockey.
There are, as mentioned previously, over and above the issue of body checking,
serious problems/issues in our game at the minor level. These problems must
be fixed. I am sure there are others.
It is mindboggling to
hear "horror" stories of the significant costs associated with having
a child involved in competitive hockey. Put plainly, it is rapidly becoming
a game for the rich. This runs contrary to the strong historical and cultural
roots which has been part of our hockey legacy.
There are remedies to these challenges confronting the game. Regarding the
costs factor, I strongly recommend this concern can be partly addressed by
increasing the age at which competitive hockey begins. It should not begin
until at least 12 years of age. One remembers the despicable, on-ice brawl,
captured on video, involving 8-year-olds in a competitive tournament in Guelph,
Ontario in November, 2007. Allowing young players as young as 8 years of age
to participate at such a high level of competition and pressure, it is easily
argued, borders on insanity and is despicable! The unfair age differential
is a blatant form of discrimination. It also, and unfairly so, places an additional
financial burden on those players who do not enjoy this age advantage. These
players are essentially financially subsidizing those born in January, February,
and March, namely, the majority of whom go on to higher and more competitive
levels...junior hockey, college hockey, the NHL. This issue is easily solved.
Hockey Canada considers the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), a professional league
in its own right, to be its business partner. The CHL consists of the three
major junior leagues in Canada, the OHL, the QMJHL, and the WHL. This relationship
has been described by Hockey Canada's President with words to the effect that
this is one of the better partnerships in all of sports. Questions must be
asked. What benefit does this partnership have for the well being and development
of minor hockey in Canada? What is the nature of this relationship? Is there
a signed agreement in place between Hockey Canada and the CHL which legalizes
The sad and harsh reality
is that violence in hockey has been an integral part of the game as long as
Hockey Canada and its predecessor organization, the Canadian Amateur Hockey
Association, have been in existence. It can be easily argued Hockey Canada,
through its relationship with the CHL, has been a willing participant in promoting
and condoning violence in the game for years. The CHL is one of the few remaining
leagues in the world that still allows fighting, which in itself is an extremely
violent act. In our justice system, it is regarded as a criminal act. What
does this say about a publically funded organization, namely, Hockey Canada,
responsible for the development and well-being of the game, partnering with
an organization that condones and allows violence. Hockey Canada has evolved
into nothing more than a shill for the CHL, and its multi-million dollar franchises
across the country, most of whose member teams play in municipally owned buildings
and which sells and markets its product as "family entertainment".
Almost 500 Canadians are currently playing division one hockey at U.S. universities.
Yet, not one of these players was "considered" good enough for Team
Canada at the recent World Junior Championships in Saskatoon. The U.S. gold
medal winning team had 11 U.S. collegians on its team. Go figure! Having not
one Canadian on our team smacks of favoritism and cronyism on the part of
Hockey Canada in favour of CHL players and a serious conflict of interest,
in light of its partnership with the CHL. It is about time the role and function
of Hockey Canada, including its financial integrity, is re-examined. A public
enquiry is in order. Canadians should demand that a federal public enquiry
be held. This decision resides with the Federal Minister of State for Sports,
the Honorable Gary Lunn.
The problems, indeed, are challenging, but achievable. The consequences of
failing to address and resolve them are scary. What is at stake is the future
of the game itself!
Public Health & Safety Advocate,
326 Frost Avenue,
February 22, 2010.
Note: The author played
(albeit many years ago) major junior hockey at St. Michael’s College School
in Toronto and collegiate hockey at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New
York. He has been a long time advocate for greater safety in all sports. His
son Christopher, played college hockey at Providence College in Rhode Island,
was a member of the 1994 Canadian Olympic hockey team and played many years
in the NHL.
If you have any comments or suggestions please