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Stuart: Prioritizing Safety and Protecting Players

By USA Hockey, 09/13/16, 10:30AM MDT

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Dr. Michael J. Stuart is a professor of orthopedic surgery and chairperson of the Division of Sports Medicine at Mayo Clinic. He's also a hockey dad and USA Hockey's chief medical and safety officer. He recently shared his thoughts on safety in youth hockey and what USA Hockey is doing to protect its players.

USA Hockey: How long have you been involved with USA Hockey as the chief medical and safety officer? What is your role in this position?

Dr. Michael Stuart: I served as the team physician for the Rochester Mustangs of the USHL for 17 years, beginning in 1984, and began my USA Hockey career as the Team USA physician at the Japanese Phoenix Cup in 1991. I was appointed to the Safety and Protective Equipment Committee in 1994 and became the USA Hockey chief medical officer in 2001. My role as chief medical officer is dedicated to keeping our players safe by promoting injury prevention and ensuring the highest quality of medical care for our athletes. I am also a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation Medical Committee and I’m a medical supervisor for IIHF World Championship events.

USA Hockey: What are some of the things USA Hockey has done to become a leader in safety among youth sports organizations?

Stuart: USA Hockey has demonstrated a commitment to safety by instituting educational programs for coaches, players and parents, enforcing existing rules and enacting meaningful rule changes while consistently promoting sportsmanship and mutual respect.

Some of the things we take for granted today, like mandatory facial protection and mouth guards for youth players, were initiatives led by USA Hockey in the 1970s. USA Hockey also established the Catastrophic Injury Registry to collect information on the prevalence of injuries in order to provide data to support potential rule and equipment changes that make the game safer.

USA Hockey also created the American Development Model and added a manager of player safety, all of which help us proactively manage and reduce risk of injury.

People often think of the ADM only in terms of player development, and it’s terrific for player development, but within that, there’s also a significant safety component in terms of age-appropriate competition and encouraging multiple-sport participation, which further reduces injury risk.  

And naturally there are also USA Hockey initiatives that are overtly safety related, such as the Heads Up Don’t Duck program, Checking the Right Way coaching curriculum, rule changes to decrease both intentional and incidental hits to the head, delay legal body-checking in games for youth until age 13, expand no-check 14U league options and create points of emphasis in an attempt to eliminate dangerous acts such as charging, boarding and checking from behind.

USA Hockey: Concussions are at the forefront of the news media. What are some important points regarding concussions that parents, athletes and coaches should know?

Stuart: We all play a very important role in concussion prevention, diagnosis and management. Health care providers, coaches, officials, parents and players need to recognize a worrisome mechanism of injury, concussion symptoms and signs. Any player with a suspected concussion should be immediately removed from play and undergo a detailed evaluation.

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury. There is no such thing as a minor brain injury.

A player does not have to be knocked out to have a concussion, in fact, less than 10 percent of concussed athletes actually lose consciousness.

Concussion symptoms evolve over time; therefore, the diagnosis may be delayed and the severity of the injury is unpredictable.

Fortunately, most athletes recover completely without any current evidence of long-term problems, but recovery is variable and treatment should be individualized.

USA Hockey: How does youth ice hockey compare to other youth sports in terms of safety?

Stuart: Children and adolescents will always be at risk for injury because they are active and fearless. Youth hockey is a relatively safe sport. The risk of injury increases as players get bigger, stronger, faster and more competitive. But ice hockey is less risky than some other contact sports and activities such as skateboarding, bicycling, skiing and horseback riding. We should also remember that team sports produce fun, physical fitness, friendships, academic success and many valuable life lessons.

The answer is not to get rid of youth sports, but to work even harder to make them safe and fun.

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