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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne Select’s Kyle Callahan, left, and Westland Blazers’ Tyler Hamilton fight for control of the puck near the boards. A ban on checking in Pee Wee hockey has fueled a debate over players’ safety when they move to a higher level.

A faceoff over checking

Parents fear ban puts kids at risk

Mark Showler is concerned his kids will be less prepared than he was as a youth hockey player, perhaps even in danger, when they start checking at the Bantam level.

He’s not alone in this belief.

“A lot of parents I’ve talked to concur that throwing them to the wolves at the Bantam level, when they have higher body weights and less preparation, might be devastating to kids who haven’t done it before,” Showler said.

Showler has two kids playing Pee Wee hockey at the Lutheran Health SportsCenter and are in the first class of youth players at that level since USA Hockey, the national governing body of amateur players, elevated the minimum checking age from Pee Wee (ages 11 and 12) to Bantam (ages 13 and 14) in 2011.

The impetus was primarily safety. A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which compared Pee Wee leagues that allowed checking in Alberta, Canada, with ones that didn’t in Quebec, Canada, found that checking tripled the risk of concussion and injury.

However, USA Hockey understands the arguments of parents like Showler, who feels teaching checking at younger ages gives players proper fundamentals.

“I think it’s a situation where the skill development outweighs the checking,” said Fort Wayne’s Mark Wilkins, USA Hockey’s officiating sectional director, the Mid-American District’s referee-in-chief and a prominent college referee.

“If you can skate with the puck and have confidence with it, your ability to see an incoming attacker and evade the person and make a pass, it’s a lot greater to have that skill. …

“With players getting hurt, they tense up and worry about that check and don’t let their body flow. With the skill development, you’re going to have the confidence to make the moves.”

It’s too early to discern whether the rules change has affected injuries, but USA Hockey said it is still dispelling the notion that it has banned physical play altogether.

“There’s no checking, but there’s clearly body contact in riding someone off the puck,” Wilkins said. “What we did was take out the direct drill-the-kid (hit) and the direct hit in the middle of the ice. You can still have body contact and use angles, but you can’t just put your hands up and hit the player. We need to educate the parents; we’re not taking physicality out of Pee Wee hockey.”

The debate on safety has been reignited with two high school players in Minnesota – one male, one female – suffering paralysis on alleged hits from behind in the past month.

“A lot of these kids, they watch the NHL and watch guys get blown up and think that’s how you’ve got to check,” Wilkins said. “If you don’t come up with the puck, what good did that do?”

Former Komets captain Ian Boyce, who coaches Pee Wee travel players, agreed.

“They see the hits and they just take a running start and aren’t concerned with getting the puck,” Boyce said.

“They’re more concerned with laying a guy out or hurting a kid. That’s ultimately what it’s become. We sensationalize it or popularize it with the videos and highlights.”

Boyce said there should be greater consistency with penalizing checks.

When his team travels to Michigan, he said, the games are much more physical.

Citing the growing success of American players in the NHL, Boyce believes USA Hockey knows what it is doing.

“I think (the rules change) serves to improve the kids’ skills at a level when they should be working on (non-checking) skill development,” Boyce said. “I personally think it’s advantageous for the kids to work on their skill sets and everything else.”

Showler isn’t convinced.

“I understand that perspective,” he said. “But what you are going to have is a lot of kids (entering the Bantam level) and skating with their heads down. Getting out of the way of hits won’t be reflex.

“Part of hockey is teaching them how to survive. I’m not sure we’re doing that.”