Youth Ice Hockey: Creating a Culture of Safety and Respect

Methods to Reduce Injuries in Youth Ice Hockey



Youth ice hockey is an outstanding sport. Like any youth sport there is risk of injury. Ice hockey certainly has its share of head injuries. Too many in my opinion. There is room for improvement. Changing a culture is not about failure. It is about taking new information to improve the safety of a sport and reduce injuries to our children, the players. Youth ice hockey is a physical sport. It is not a reckless sport.

Youth Ice Hockey: Creating a Culture of Safety and Respect

Methods to Reduce Injuries in Youth Ice Hockey
by Gary Pilarchik LCSW-C
Below is a piece quoted from a Yahoo Sport’s article. The event took place on 6/6/2011.  It describes a season ending concussion from a hit placed on a player that no longer had the puck. In fact, a solid 2 seconds (check out the video) and several strides occurred between the pass of the puck and the hit. This reckless hit should not have happened. It is a good focusing point for improving the culture of player safety and respect in youth ice hockey.

It happened 5:07 into the first period. Horton skated up ice, passed the puck to his left and kept his head turned to watch it. He took two steps. He was in the process of taking a third step – almost a full second after releasing the puck – when he got blasted at the Vancouver blue line. As he fell backward, his head smacked onto the ice.

Rome struck Horton from the front in terms of Horton’s torso, so he apparently did not violate Rule 48, which the league instituted last year to ban blindside hits to the head. Horton did not have his head up, which he is still responsible for doing under the rules as they are written today. But the hit was late, and Rome jumped into it, leaving his feet as he made contact, his left elbow elevating on the follow through.

I don’t know what went through Rome’s mind at that split-second. He’s a quiet guy. He’s not known as a dirty player. He was suspected of having a concussion himself in the Western Conference final. But Rome’s instinct was to hit Horton high instead of drilling his shoulder into his chest, and that speaks to a larger problem.

It just so happens that the NHL’s blue-ribbon panel led by league executive Brendan Shanahan, who will handle supplementary discipline starting next season, will present its recommendations on expanding Rule 48 when the general managers meet Wednesday in Boston. The league must do more to protect defenseless players.
“The culture of our game, that’s the stuff we need to get out of the game, the head shots,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. “It’s in the league’s hands now, and I’m sure they’ll take a look at it and do the right thing.”

Three Ways to Reduce Reckless Play and Reduce Injuries

There are often only two ways that come to mind to reduce reckless play and they are to penalize the action after it occurs or educate players, coaches, referees, and parents on behaviors “not to do on the ice” that are considered risky, harmful, reckless, and dangerous. Even if the hit doesn’t violate “a rule” it can still be reckless and unnecessary, especially in youth ice hockey.
The third way which is often overlooked is a huge leap toward making a culture change, and that is to reward ‘Fair Play’. ‘Fair Play’ is probably youth ice hockey of the future and the only thing stopping it from happening is a push from a leader. Once it starts getting used regularly in the mainstream, it will catch on.
‘Fair Play’ is a concept of rules and modifications that do not change the speed or tone of the game. It simply rewards respectful and safe play. Think about it. Your team gains for following the rules. ‘Fair play’ rules and concepts do not remove the spirit or physical nature of the game. That belief is a myth. And those individuals that use that as a reason not adopt the ‘Fair Play’ rules or push change in youth ice hockey culture are indirectly harming our children. It is not intentional but it is a failure to implement better methods to reduce reckless play, prevent hits, and keep our children more safe. Safety is about reduction. Reduce the reckless and dangerous hits, and your reduce injuries.
What do you think the main difference is between the above three ways to reduce reckless play?
The answer is that penalizing a player after the behavior or action that harms another player doesn’t prevent the occurance of an injury or the chance of an injury.  A youth player is now hurt and the punishment comes later. Yes, penalties are needed but they are not the only way to reduce reckless play and prevent the hits that harm our children, the youth players.
Reducing reckless hits and reckless play will reduce injury. A player can’t get hurt by a hit they did not receive. Think about it. This is the culture change for youth ice hockey that must and will occur. It is an addition to the current youth ice hockey culture. It adds a strong push toward education and standards of play as ways to increase player respect, safe play, and remove reckless play. If you prevent the reckless hits and over-the-top hits… you absolutely reduce injuries.
Youth ice hockey is not the NHL. The players are not adults. Youth ice hockey is made up of mostly volunteers. There are some paid positions but they are not trained at the highest levels as our NHL coaches and referees. We should not compare youth ice hockey to hockey in the NHL. They are two different sports. They are two different cultures. Once is a culture of youth players supervised by adults and the other is a culture of professional adult players supervised by adults. As adults, we must implement the highest safety standards as a way to reduce injury to our children, the youth players.
A strong push to instill a daily routine of all the best safety practices in youth ice hockey must occur.  Every practice, every game, every tournament, and every function must spend two minutes on addressing player safety and respect. This is how cultures are changed. If you change the environment, attitudes, and routines, youth players will follow the changes. If you talk about safety issues, remind players, coaches, parents, referees, and all involved… attitudes will change. If you begin rewarding teams and players for ‘fair play’, their behaviors and attitudes will change. In the end… there will be less injuries to the youth ice hockey players, our children. This can only occur with the stance that we must be ACTIVE on a daily basis to promote safety. That means spending 2 minutes talking to each player bench before every single game. You can not assume this occurs, it must be made into a USA Hockey, League, and Club standard of play.

One Way: Addressing Current Youth Ice Hockey Penalties

Culture change is difficult because we don’t like change in general. The old ways are familiar and feel safe, oddly enough. We need to get over ourselves for the sake and safety of youth ice hockey players. That attitude of defending the old ways has to be ‘changed’ before culture change can take place to better protect our youth ice hockey players. In this case we are talking about harm to our children. We can not let our stubbornness prevent us from better protecting our children from potential harm and injury.
The main arguments that best slow and hamper culture change toward safety, in the youth ice hockey arena, are arguments about increasing penalties, changing rules, and changing checking. We use them as barriers to put off making immediate changes or taking immediate actions to improve safety. There is a lot that can be done immediatley to improve the safety of the game and better protect the yout players. They key word is immediate.
Stronger penalties are needed for players that make contact to a players neck, head, or back – in my opinion. It is a youth sport. I personally say if you do that, in any manner, you sit for the rest of the game and your team serves out the penalty. But, as I said, when it comes to changing penalties and rules it is a barrier to immediately implementing actions that can improve player respect and safety. For this article, let’s leave the current penalties, rules, and checking alone. Let’s step over the barriers and move along toward changes that can be down immediately or within 30 days.

Another Way: Establish a Daily Routine of Player Safety & Respect

I can’t stress this enough. You do not change behavior or maximize safety, in this case, by having something written somewhere on paper. You do not change behavior or maximize safety by talking about it one time. You do not change behavior or maximize safety by assuming people will do what is right. If everyone did what is right, we would not need prisons. Think about it. USA Hockey, Leagues and Clubs have to arrive at the mindset that ALL invovled need to be focuse and reminded about safety, rules, and penalty enforcement before every game. You also need a bench level large sign that states consequences for reckless play. Daily game day reminders are the key to saving a child from injury.
In order to change youth ice hockey culture and move to an improved culture of player safety and respect, youth players and all involved must live and breath safety and respect. It has to be part of the players and volunteers daily routine. It must be a part of all aspects of youth ice hockey.
All you need, to begin to establish this change, is a 2 minute review on safe and respectful play before any youth ice hockey event. USA Youth Ice Hockey has already done the difficult work of writing a Zero Tolerance Policy that addresses many of the aspects related to player safety and respect. That policy can be used as a starting point.  
As stated, it can not be left in a book. It must be flaunted and enforced on a daily basis. It can not hang quietly on a wall or sit safely in a book. It must be visible and actively addressed and reviewed. You establish a culture and routine of player safety and respect by allowing the 6 year old player to hear it every time they go to practice, play a game, or attends a youth ice hockey event. With time, it becomes the culture and your future 18 year old player will have heard it for 12 years. That is how you change youth ice hockey into a stronger culture of player safety and respect. It just needs to be started.
This routine is very easy to establish. It takes little time and effort to review these values at all events. It will improve the sport of youth ice hockey without impacting the spirit of the game. There will be less injuries to players because the reckless hits, over-the-top hits or questionable hits will occur with less frequency. A player can not be harmed by a hit they did not receive. Think about it. This is about reducing injury by preventing unwanted hits and play. We must teach the youth players, coaches, referees and parents about what is and is not tolerated. We are the adults in a youth league. This message must be heard daily. Putting it on paper somewhere is ineffective. It must be addressed daily for 2 minutes by the game day refs to the game day players and coaches. Two minutes is not a lot to ask.

Another Way: Adopt ‘Fair Play’ Rules and Reward Safety & Respect

As I mention rules are a sticky subject. There are currently ‘Fair Play” rules and standards that exist. There are ‘Fair Play’ tournaments. This concept of ‘Fair Play’ is not old, it is just woefully under-utilized. Search the term and you can read about it in detail.
Essentially, “Fair Play’ rules or standards reward teams for not being penalized. They reward players, coaches, and teams for playing with respect and following the current rules. Rather then getting a small penalty as the only way to shape behavior, which is by the way the worst way to change behavior, teams are rewarded for not getting a penalty. Players and coaches realize they can improve the outcome of the game in their team’s favor by playing with respect and safety in mind and as a strategy. Behavior is shaped on two fronts instead of one. Two is always better then one, when it comes to protecting the youth players.
There are variation to these rules. Clubs and Leagues can adopt their own variation. The benefit of using ‘Fair Play’ modifications is that they can be implemented immediately. Clubs and Leagues must follow the standards and rules of USA Hockey and they can add to them. Clubs and Leagues can adopt additional rules immediately to improve the safety of our youth hockey players, our children.
This is a culture shift. I want you to think about what is more harmful in a youth player’s mind.
Scenario One:
A player delivers a reckless hit to an opposing player and runs the player’s head into the boards. The referee sees the hit but misses the force of the head contact. The referee does make a call and the player gets 2 minutes and a 10 minute misconduct. During the 2 minute power play his team prevents a power play goal.
Scenario Two
Exactly the same as above. And under the ‘Fair Play’ rules designed by the League any misconduct causes the infracting team to lose a goal. In the case where the team does not have a goal, the other team is rewarded a goal.
What is more likely to shape a youth players behavior? Let me save you the argument of the 1 in 100 players. That player is not the focus. However, 99 out of 100 youth players will see Scenario Two as more significant and it will change their behavior more so then Scenario One.
And the above is just an example. You don’t need to reduce goals in the above case, but you might for a blatant boarding call or a reckless hit  to a players head that has released the puck. You have to get in the heads of a youth player that behavior matters as well as the coaches.


Below is the decision for the hit described at the beginning of this article by the NHL. It came out on 6/8/2011 and is copied from Yahoo Sports.  The player is suspended 4 games. The injured player is out indefinately. These are professional players in an adult league. The ruling was on delivering a late hit. If you want to reduce injuries in youth ice hockey, a stronger culture of safety and respect needs to be established. The best way to prevent or reduce injuries is by doing everything you can to prevent the initial hit. You can’t get injuried from a reckless or late hit that doesn’t occur.
The penalties and punishiments in youth ice hockey are, in my opinion, now lagging behind the NHL. There are multiple game supsensions and huge fines coming from the NHL. Shouldn’t youth ice hockey be doing more to protect the children? Waiting is not the answer.

From the NHL:

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome has been suspended for four games for delivering a late hit to Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton in Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final, the National Hockey League announced today.

“Two factors were considered in reaching this decision,” said NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy(notes).  ”The hit by Rome was clearly beyond what is acceptable in terms of how late it was delivered after Horton had released the puck and it caused a significant injury.”

Rome was assessed a five-minute major penalty for interference and game misconduct at 5:07 of the first period.

Rome will miss the remainder of the Stanley Cup Final series. In the event that the Final ends before Game 7, the suspension will carry over to the start of the 2011-12 regular season.”