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Changing the dangerous play culture

By Dave Pond, 03/15/18, 2:30PM MDT


USA Hockey has been proactive regarding player safety – both on and off the ice

No real hockey fan would disagree that today’s version of the game – at any level – features incredible athletes who are faster, stronger and more skilled than those who laced up the skates before them.

Yet despite the ongoing evolution within the sport itself, television networks still highlight blindside hits, headshots, checking from behind and fights for shock value. Meanwhile, a bevy of unbelievable passes, eyebrow-raising one-timers, and jaw-dropping saves sometimes fly under the radar.

USA Hockey is working to bring permanent change to the game at the amateur level, simply by focusing on hard work, ethics and true sportsmanship.

“The culture in hockey where players bang sticks or cheer when a blow-up hit occurs, where coaches and parents constantly yell ‘Hit ‘em,’ has no place in our sport,” said Kevin Margarucci, who’s served as USA Hockey manager of player safety since 2015. “We support the proper progression of body contact and checking, but nowhere is the word ‘hit’ used.

“Based on the rules, most of the ‘hits’ you see in these replay clips are illegal, but they’re celebrated as ‘part of the game,’” he continued. “If we teach our kids sportsmanship, mutual respect and good ethics, we can eliminate some of the unnecessary and dangerous plays that occur during a game.”

Safety and skill progressions

Over the years, USA Hockey has been proactive regarding player safety – both on and off the ice – through educational programs for players, coaches, parents and officials, rule changes for head hits and body-checking, and a commitment to both concussion research and injury prevention.

“Even though you can’t legally body-check in a youth game until the 14U level, properly teaching how to receive and give a body contact/checking at the 12U level is critical in the skill development of a young hockey player,” Margarucci said. “The foundational skills for all this start at the younger levels – 8U and 10U – with solid skating instruction, angling, stick-checking and body contact.”

Additionally, the American Development Model is a tool designed specifically to help everyone reach their full potential.

“The ADM is a great model to teach the right skills at the right time in the proper age-appropriate progression,” Margarucci said. “When done right, kids play the game the right way from the start so, when they get older, it’s more about skill rather than violence.”

That means less risk of injuries, too, said Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer and chair of sports medicine at Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.

"The increased risk of concussion and other injuries from fighting in the professional ranks and some junior leagues is obvious,” Dr. Stuart said. “Fighting is not part of ice hockey at the youth, high school, collegiate or international levels, and the promotion of player safety should include the elimination of fighting for this select group of players.”

USA Hockey has identified potentially dangerous actions like charging, boarding, checking from behind and hits to the head as “points of emphasis,” and strengthened the penalties accordingly. Even the first violation results in an automatic major plus a 10-minute misconduct penalty.

“Safety begins with education, coaching, following and enforcing the existing rules of the game,” Stuart said. “Injuries can’t be eliminated from sports, but being young, active and fearless is also associated with injury risk. In fact, contact sports [like hockey] are actually less risky for severe brain injury than skateboarding, bicycling, skiing, and horseback riding.”

Accountability and the Golden Rule

When players are on the ice, Margarucci emphasized the importance of keeping a hockey-themed variation of the “Golden Rule” in mind. It’s really easy to say you’re sorry after the fact, or that you “didn’t mean it,” but it’s much better to do the right thing in the first place.  

“Don’t do anything to a teammate or an opponent that you wouldn’t want someone to do to you,” he said. “You don’t have to go looking to make a huge hit, but when contact or checking is inevitable, knowing the right way to play won’t just keep you safe, it’ll keep your opponents safe as well.

“That’s what competition should be about: playing the game the right way, working hard and expecting your opponents to do the same.”

Set expectations

Although players need to learn that they’re responsible for their own actions, the elements of good sportsmanship can be taught, which is where parents and coaches can make a huge impact.

“I coach high school hockey,” Margarucci said, “and the one thing I tell our parents at the beginning of every season is to cheer for our team in a positive way – don’t say anything bad towards other fans, our opponents or referees.

“Coaches have such an influence on young athletes,” he continued. “Our words, actions and body language go a long way in determining how players will behave on the ice.

“Those who coach at the younger age levels should be very enthusiastic, organized and prepared to give their kids the best experience, because that’s what will keep kids coming back for more.”

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