A freak accident claimed the life of a AA Midget hockey player in Alberta last weekend reminding us again that hockey can be dangerous. But so can football, baseball, lacrosse and walking down the street for that matter. There will, of course, be an investigation, as well there should be to ensure all required equipment was being used. It certainly appears from early indications that it was. It has already been pointed out that neck guards are mandatory in minor hockey though they are intended to provide protection from sticks and skates, not pucks shot at high velocity. This young man threw himself down to block a shot as he had so many other times before. By all accounts he loved to play hockey. He put his body at risk on several occasions before. The important thing here is to recognize this was an accident – a horrible tragedy no parent, coach or teammate would ever want or expect to have to endure.
While not nearly as severe, over the last several years I’ve witnessed my fair share of players taken from the ice on a stretcher after having broken legs, arms or having suspected neck or back injuries. The game moves quickly on a slick surface prone to missteps and head-on crashes.
I am sure there are those who will be quick to condemn the sport, saying it is too dangerous for kids to play with its reckless body checking, hitting from behind and recent epidemic of head shots.
At least some of the blame has to be placed on new equipment which, while indeed more protective also gives players an air of invincibility. Some claim harder, lighter equipment has come to be used as a weapon in some instances.
More partial blame can certainly be placed on professional hockey from where the younger players draw their cues. You need only watch a nightly sports reel to see examples of hits from behind, dangerous stick work and typically senseless fights. I am certain the fights we are seeing with some regularity in the Boy’s games are partly fueled by new-found testosterone and partly by the example set by hockey at higher levels.
Steps are being taken to try to make the game safer at the grass roots level – from stop signs on the backs of helmets to new, stringent rules against head contact. I know the Devil and the Boy have been in games where these new rules have been vigorously enforced; perhaps even to the detriment of the flow of the game, but this will presumably work itself out over time. Body contact is even increasingly being taken out of minor hockey leagues, though many traditionalists argue against this. Major junior hockey has been coming down hard on dangerous play with severe suspensions where intent to injure is determined – a trend the NHL could be forced to follow as the careers of their stars like Sidney Crosby are threatened. Making the game safer at the top should trickle down as its bad habits have to this point.
But any of these changes would not have prevented last weekend’s accident, an unfortunate result of a kid playing the game the way he loved to – trying to help his team by blocking a puck with his mostly-protected body. Little consolation we know to those he left behind. The next shot to be blocked by his former comrades will no doubt be met with a distinct level of fear and trepidation. We can only hope they don’t stop loving hockey, which will remain their everlasting tie to their fallen teammate. I have and will continue to watch my kids play simply assuming they’ll play smart, play safe, stay fortunate and avoid injury.