In an attempt to increase player safety, body checking has been taken out of the recreational level of Vancouver Island’s Amateur Hockey Association.
Last week, members of the Island’s overseeing body for minor hockey voted in favour of implementing the rule change for this season.
The new rule applies to recreational-level bantam (13-14) and midget (15-17) teams on the Island, including the Victoria, Juan de Fuca, Saanich and Peninsula associations (Victoria Racquet Club Minor Hockey doesn’t carry house level teams).
Body checking will continue to exist at the higher competitive “rep” levels. Until this year, body checking on the Island was introduced to boys at the rep level for pee wee (11 and 12 year olds), but not until bantam for house.
Now house division teams will play without body checking, right through midget.
“It’s a big step forward. Every minor sport is supposed to be fun and now rec players can focus on their skills instead of worrying about getting hit,” said president Andrew Holenchuk of the Victoria Minor Hockey Association.
The decision can be pinned on a number of things, but ultimately came down to the safety of the players, he said.
“We’ve been a proponent of banning body checking from the Island rec levels for a couple of seasons. It was already that way in some of the Island’s northern (associations).”
Removing body checking from the recreational levels of minor hockey is a growing trend across Canada and was ruled province-wide by the Ontario Hockey Federation in May.
Plenty of factors led to the decision, which has been debated as far back as 1981 in that province. The evolution of bigger, faster skaters and the modern armour “protecting” them have changed the game. There’s also the newly understood danger of concussions. And the argument that hitting never really had a place in recreational hockey.
Saanich minor hockey is also behind the decision, 100 per cent, said president Sylvain Fradette, who agrees it will lead to less injuries and concussions.
But there is a minority backlash to the vote. With those players in mind, Fradette wondered if the blanket rule change could have been phased in over a transition period.
“It’s only three weeks before hockey season (September) and our players paid and registered for this season back in February. Granted we’re not hearing back from the (bantam and midget house league) players who are happy with the decision, but I got responses from 10 (bantam and midget) players who expressed concerns about the adjustments they have to make, it’s a much different game.”
Not only do some rec players enjoy the physical nature of the game, but Fradette said as many as 30 per cent of the players on Saanich’s 20 house division teams are bubble players aspiring to play rep. For those players, the difficulty of playing up at the next level becomes even harder if they aren’t experienced with body checking.
“We’ve discussed a new division, a (non-tryout) level for players who wish to play a full-contact game, but it’s hardly feasible.
“Instead we face challenges of running body checking clinics and other ways of preparing kids who want to play competitive hockey,” Fradette said.
Drawing players back
“My understanding is that (non-body checking) helps bring more players to the game of hockey. And it’s still contact — you can never please everybody, but we were seeing a bantam drop off with boys and girls, and we think this makes a huge difference.”
“Picture a 13-year-old playing for the first time, with limited skating ability, up against kids who’ve played over five years,” Holenchuk.
Holenchuk also hopes the new rule will offer another avenue for girls to continue playing hockey in boys leagues.
Advil for the soul
One person who’s happy to see body checking ruled out is Colleen Butler, the motivator behind Brain Navigators.
Butler is Nanaimo-based but regularly visits Victoria and other Island cities to hold clinics with youth teams in contact sports on the dangers of concussions.
“One in 10 athletes will get a concussion this year,” Butler said. “This rule helps keep the kids safe and playing, it’s is a total bonus.
“There’s a lot of myths out there and one of them is that concussions come from knockouts. Actually, less than 10 per cent of concussions are knockouts. Its the smaller, repetitive collisions that it’s not OK to shake off and move on.”