USA Youth Ice Hockey: It is Time for a New Culture of Safety

Advancing Youth Ice Hockey Safety Through Rule Modification



Youth ice hockey is a physcial sport but it is not a reckless sport. I believe proper checking has an appropriate place in youth ice hockey. I also believe rule modifciations such as Fair Play Rules are needed to reduce the risk of injury to our youth players, our children. Safety is about continual assessment and improvement. A cultural change is on the immediate horizon for youth ice hockey, USA hockey needs to lead the charge and lead the change. Parents want more for their children.

USA Youth Ice Hockey:

It is Time for a New Culture of Safety

Advancing Youth Ice Hockey Safety Through Rule Modification 
by Gary Pilarchik LCSW-C

Improving Safety in Youth Ice Hockey

I want to be clear that safety is a concern for USA Hockey, leagues, clubs, and all invovled. I am not questioning their sincere concerns for the players, our kids. I am simply asserting more can be done and safety should always be looked at with eyes of change.
I also want to be clear that energy should not be placed on whether or not checking has a place in youth ice hockey. This debate derails efforts and abilities to make significant timely safety changes. While the debate goes on, youth player, our kids, get hurt. I would agree an alternative non-checking league is a great alternative to increase the number of youth players in ice hockey. Alternatives are good. However, this Knol is about using what currently exists to reduce the number of injuries in youth ice hockey.
Hockey is a physical sport but it is not a reckless sport. Proper checking has a place in youth ice hockey. The best way to reduce injury is by reducing reckless play. In short the penalties and punishments for reckless and dangerous hits have to be significant to the player, the coach, the team, and the outcome of the game and future games.
These changes would reduce injuries in both checking and non-checking leagues without reducing any aspect of the spirit of the game. Significant penalites prevent the hit. The ground work already exists. The problem is shifting the youth ice hockey culture. Change is only as difficult as we make it. Injuries occur in youth ice hockey for various reasons. Removing checking would reduce contact but not “best” prevent reckless play. I am suggesting changes that would “best” help change the mindset of players and the culture of youth ice hockey. My hope is this article gets read and used. I am an experienced cognitive and behavioral therapist. I understand change; the barriers to, the methods of, and the path to successful outcomes.
Youth ice hockey needs to move toward using “best” practices. These practices already exist for the most part. There are “best” penalties and punishments to prevent the hit. Preventing a reckless hit removes a chance for injury.


Youth Ice Hockey is Not an Adult League but We are the Adults

The assumption that NHL checking and hitting is needed in youth ice hockey is irrelevant. Adult leagues can not dictate the development of youth ice hockey leagues. The increased level of brutality and physical play found in the NHL is not hindered by better managing the safety of youth ice hockey leagues. When our children make the NHL and Affiliates, they will have the opportunity to step up their aggression.

That being said, the USA Hockey Rules, as standards, have to be looked at from the perspective of a child and youth player. This is the first shift needed to make significant safety changes. It is important that all people involved understand this is about children, teenagers, and young adults in a youth league. We are the adults. We get to make the rules, enforce the rules, and make changes to reduce the frequency of reckless hits and reduce harm. That is the second shift needed to make significant safety changes. We are the adults and we are responsible for making the game as safe as possible by following “best” practices.


Injury Prevention is Best Served on Day One

The current system for correcting problematic or reckless ice behavior is penalties. The problem which is also a huge distraction is how the referee interprets the rules or calls the game. USA Hockey has worked on clarifying the rules. That is a start but it is not good enough for one reason alone. They already have a lot of great rules/penalties in place to protect players, they just occur after the fact, once a player is fouled and often harmed.  Injury prevention begins with a cultural attitude from day one. When a player enters youth ice hockey be it a Mite or Bantam… the first breath of their experience should be filled with safety and player respect. The problem is “we” in youth ice hockey do not know how to do that – that well. A whole lot more can be done on a behavioral and cognitive level to change culture and attitude.

Let me tell you what absolutely does not work.  That is putting it on paper and saying we have it written here. Injury prevention is about action and culture change. It is about making what is on paper known every minute of try-outs, practices, games, and tournaments. Like I said, a lot of the information is out there to improve safety.  The problem is getting out into the “new” culture of youth ice hockey. This is not a difficult or costly process. Injury prevention and reducing reckless plays starts on day one. It is an attitude, not a document, that reduces injury and improves player safety.

Creating a “New” Youth Ice Hockey Culture: Safety, Respect, and Fair Play

The principles for improving safety and respect already exists in USA Hockey’s policies, procedures, guidelines, or whatever you want to call it. Check out the Zero Tolerance policy of USA Hockey. It is a great start. As I mentioned, having it on paper is worthless if it is not implemented, enforced, and reviewed every minute of the day. The youth ice hockey players, coaches, parents, and clubs must breathe this. We don’t need new things written. We need to take what is written and apply it daily to create a “new” youth ice hockey culture. This is quite easy. This is a general outline to make a cultural shift. The hardest part is having the material. In the case of youth ice hockey… the material already exists.

1.      Set a Tone of Safety, Respect, and Fair Play from Day One

  • Signed contract by the players that outline safety, respect, and fair play.
  • A USA Hockey computer course that is completed by both players and parents that demonstrate the principles of safety, respect, and fair play.
  • Signed contract by the coaches and assistant coaches that safety, respect, and fair play come before winning.
  • Punishments should be outlined clearly and I will address that later. 
2.      Create an Ongoing Atmosphere that Shouts: Safety, Respect, and Fair Play
      • Design and hang, standard or club generated banners, on each team bench. They should shout the theme of safety, respect, and fair play.
  • Hang the bullet points of USA Hockey’s Zero Tolerance policy on the player’s benches, in penalty boxes, in the clock area, and stands. They must be 100% visible at all times to players, coaches, referees, and parents. They should serve as reminders to officials on what to call and to players and coaches on what not to do. Having it written somewhere is useless if it is not visible and actively used daily.
  • Use patches similar to the Canadian “STOP” patches which is: Safety Toward Other Players. Get the “New” culture on the player’s jersey. Each club can design their own.  

3.      Enforce Significant Immediate and Future Punishment for Reckless Play

  • Punishment only works if it is perceived as severe before the incident occurs. Changes in youth ice hockey need to be made to address punishment.


Punishment: Creating Penalties that Discourage Reckless Play Before it Occurs

Punishment and penalties have to be looked at and reviewed on two levels. They must also be looked at from the perspective of a youth hockey player.

The first level of punishment and penalties is: do the current in game penalties prevent the unwanted behavior and are they severe enough to prevent future behavior? That is, does the youth player believe that checking or hitting someone recklessly is worth the penalty they will personally incur? I would argue yes that some players will take the penalty and hit the player. I would also argue some coaches would agree it is worth the penalty. The in game penalties for the most dangerous and reckless hits aren’t severe enough and where they might be, aren’t called consistently enough. I would also argue a youth player doesn’t know exactly what they will get in the way of a penalty for reckless play.
A youth player has to absolutely and clearly know they will get a maximum penalty for a reckless hit. There can be no gray area of 2 or 5 or 2 and 10 or misconduct or game misconduct. Currently a youth player can get various penalties for a hitting a player in the neck, head, or back. Youth players must have clear cut maximum penalties if you want to reduce reckless play from the game. Youth ice hockey doesn’t need referee interpretation for reckless neck, head, and back hits. There is a lot of work to be done with penalties and referees. If the players and coaches believe the in game penalties are acceptable then reckless and dangerous checks and hits won’t significanlty decrease. They players will harm and the coaches won’t strongly object to their youth player’s actions.
The second level of punishment and penalties: is do they impact the infracting player, coach, and team in a way that the cost completely outweighs the reckless and dangerous play by the players and team. I know that they sound similar. The first level is more about the individual player feeling that, “if I do this it isn’t worth the penalty and punishment.” The second level has to do more with the changing how the entire team approaches and plays the game. Are the penalties and punishment making it more difficult for that team to actually win?
There is an outstanding second level system in place to address this and that is a modified rule set that manages safety and respectful play in youth ice hockey. It is called Fair Play Rules. These modified rules do not change the spirit of the game but only punish the reckless teams. That is, two teams playing with safety, respect, and fair play in their mind and fabric will still compete at a high level with less risk of player harm. Checking and physical play are allowed in Fair Play Rules. The teams need to make sure it is done correctly or the game outcome is significantly changed. The spirit and competive nature of game play is not changed.
Level one is more about existing penalties and the way they are called and used in the game. Level two is more about looking at was the course of the game significantly changed in favor of the more respectful team, were there supplemental suspensions beyond the rules by the clubs that affect future games, where the coaches reprimanded (even as volunteers), and did the team ultimately recognize they must change their behavior and proceed with safety, respect, and fair play.
Punishment and penalties must be severe enough to greatly reduce and prevent reckless and dangerous play, not just respond to hits and fouls once they occur.  The goal must be to change youth player and coaching behavior to prevent a player from being put in a position they could be harmed. You can’t get hurt by a reckless hit if you aren’t hit recklessly. Think about it.

Modified Rules that Support Player Safety, Respect, and Fair Play: The 2% Rule

Rule modifications must be designed and implemented to prevent future behavior. A youth player and coach will clearly see the benefits of playing with safety, respect and fair play in mind when it is the only way to win games. I would love to say the only way to recognize it is the right way to play. The problem is most players, parents, and coaches agree with the later. It is the 2% of coaches and players that don’t get it that cause problems for the other 98% of players. These 2% do the most harm to our kids and to youth ice hockey.

Modifying rules really don’t affect the 98% of the youth players and coaches that do believe in safety first. The question I like to ask is: Why do you protect the 2% that do the most harm to the youth players and to the sport of youth ice hockey?
Rule modifications can come from USA Hockey, they can be Club defined, and can be new models like the Fair Play Rules. Here are some ideas to think about. Change is not difficult.
  • Check the wrong way and you don’t play anymore that day. Mandatory penalties. You are done playing. All youth players want to play. Remove the game from them for reckless and dangerous hits and they will decrease reckless play.
  • Any contact or hit to the head, neck, or back of a youth player merits a 5 minute major. The player not only gets penalized but his or her team must kill off a 5 minute major.
  • Implement the current Fair Play Rules. Adjusting the score will absolutely change behavior of an entire team. The coaches and players will take notice.
  • Reward a team 1 goal each period that incurs no penalties related to head, neck, or hits to the back.
  • A player can not be contacted in the form of a check that does not have a puck on their stick. You know the 2 or 3 step rule used to finish a check is not a rule. Think about it.
  •  A player checking a player must be making a play for the puck. Their stick must be on the ice.
  • After two penalties for contacting players in the neck, head, or back, all penalties (all types) incurred by that team will be 5 minute majors. Think about it. There is no need to be bound by NHL hockey rules. Create rules to manage youth behavior and a youth a game.


In Review: Creating a “New” Culture for Youth Ice Hockey

Do you remember when digital cameras came out? Many companies stood hard to the beauty and effectiveness of film photography. They were absolutely sure digital cameras were a fad. Those companies went out of business or had to play hard catch up. This is a good example of past culture preventing future change. It is the same issue that is going on with youth ice hockey. The past is familiar and comfortable. The future is unknown. In the case of youth ice hockey the future is maximizing the safety of the youth players, our children. The old rules and old ways are gone even if we don’t want to accept it as players, coaches, parents, clubs, and leagues. The culture is changing.
I personally believe the future of youth ice hockey will fall on recognizing youth ice hockey is a physical sport and not a reckless sport. The rules will be modified to manage a wonderful sport so the opportunities for player injuries are greatly reduced. To prevent injury you must reduce the contacts that cause injury. A modified rule set, be it under the current Fair Play Rules or individual league and club modifications is where youth hockey is going. Do you want to lead or follow?
Keep this question in mind. Where would a parent send their child to play a physical sport? The rink of old film where you weren’t sure how the picture will turn out till the end of the game? Or the rink of digital pictures where things were better controlled at each frame of the game? Parents will put their kids in the safest rink. I predict that the club and league that builds the “best” practices league, that essentially adopts the Fair Play Rules, will be the league and clubs that survive.
These changes do not reduce the spirit or competitive nature of youth ice hockey. They only advance the safety of the game for our children, the youth players. No parent is going to chose less for their child once a league and clubs step forward with a “new” culture for safety in youth ice hockey. That is, safety, respect, and fair play. After 5 years in youth ice hockey, I know the parents are waiting. I also know many would drive out of their way to find a safer league. Not only is it the right thing to do for the youth players, it is also what the parents want.