Hockey players spend more time in the box for plays that could cause concussions
Minor hockey leagues across the country are still adjusting to Hockey Canada's efforts to crack down on neck injuries and concussions after new head-contact rules were introduced this season.
The new rules call for two or four-minute penalties for players who intentionally or accidentally hit an opponent in the face, neck or head, but many feel these calls aren't being made evenly across the board.
"Application needs to be more consistent," said Bruce Dielissen of the referees' calls, who coaches for Crowfoot 2's midget team. "It's mostly discretionary for them."
Without consistency, Dielissen finds it creates more hostility and instead "incites players for retaliation." It also makes it more difficult for players to learn what's appropriate and what's not as the season progresses.
Bob Johnson, whose son is in his eighth year of playing hockey, sympathizes with what's happening but is still concerned.
"You can't call everything, but as a parent it's disgruntling and disheartening because it's your child out there," he said. "Avoiding head contact is tough, they have to keep their sticks down, but that comes with coaching. Very seldom do they take the time to talk to the kids and I think they're going backwards."
Sixteen-year-old Luke Allison currently plays in Calgary's midget division and found that more attention was given to the new rules early on in the season, but hasn't been a point of focus since.
When asked about how the rules have impacted the way his teammates and opponents play the game, Allison said, "it hasn't really changed that much. There are guys out there that just really want to hit people."
"Your hockey sense and smarts go a lot further," he said. "You need to avoid certain players and just stay out of their way."
Another minor-league player shared similar experiences.
"People were getting really dirty," said Kornel Szabo, 15,. "It's good that those players have more penalties, but they still play the same."
Mike Anderson has been a referee for the last 23 years and is quick to point out that the game contact has changed considerably over the years.
"Back in the '70s you just tucked down and delivered," he said. Today, players go into their hits with the full height of their body, which makes it easier to lose control on impact. "The most important thing I see is that kids have to learn how to body check again.
"In lower divisions it's gotten better, but it's still pretty aggressive," he said.
Anderson does note that in the beginning of the season he was calling about 25 head contact penalties per game, but that number has dropped to less than ten per game on average.
For Todd Millar, president of Hockey Calgary, this is exactly what the league wants to see.
"The education process has been paying off," said Millar. "Initially there was more confusion and you had a lot of penalties being called, but now we're certainly seeing a lot less calls being made on the ice. This has really strengthened the position in our league that contact of the head is not tolerated."
As for discrepancy in the consistency of calls being made by refs, Millar acknowledges, "they've been going through a learning curve too, but they're getting better."
The hope is that younger players will adopt a cleaner playing style as they progress forward since that's all they'll know when it comes to head contact.
For parents who've seen how their kid's game has changed as contact was introduced, some have wondered why the strengthening of these rules hasn't happened sooner.
"It's about time," said parent Darryl Zerr. "I wish it would have been introduced ten years ago."
- By JESSICA RAFUSE