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Fighting in Hockey: Tough on the Body and the Brain

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Fighting in Hockey: Tough on the Body and the Brain

The CMAJ calls for a ban on all forms of intentional head trauma in hockey. The physical and mental consequences of brain damage are serious.

An editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal  yesterday called for an end to violence in hockey. Editor-in-chief Rajendra Kale, MD, called on “all doctors to support a ban on all forms of intentional head trauma and endorse deterrent penalties in hockey.”

Kale’s voice is the latest to join the growing number of people—from medical professionals to fans—who believe that what hockey players are doing to each other on the ice is simply not worth the consequences to them off the ice.

What is CTE?

Kale cites the research being done at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. Researchers have reviewed 48 cases of neuropathologically verified chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). So far they’ve analyzed the brains of 70 athletes and over 50 have shown evidence of CTE.

CTE has been sustained by boxers, football players , and hockey players . It’s associated with memory problems, Parkinson’s disease, behavioural and personality changes, and speech and gait difficulties.

As Kale states, “the brain does not tolerate repeated hits”.

Despite a growing body of evidence and post-concussion symptoms experienced by NHL players such as Sidney Crosby, so far researchers’ findings don’t appear to be swaying the NHL to take a serious look at fighting or head shots.

Concussions aren’t new

A six-year study of the University of British Columbia’s men’s varsity hockey team revealed in 2009 that

  • forwards sustained a greater number of injuries than defencemen and goalies
  • sprains and strains were the number one injury, making up 40 percent of all injuries
  • concussions were the second most prevalent type of injury at 13 percent
  • non-contact injuries were most common
  • the head, neck, and face sustained the most injuries

Playing hockey is a tradition, a rite of passage of many youngsters in Canada. The possibility that playing hockey sets your child up for sustaining possible brain damage is a sobering thought. Of course riding bicycles, crossing the road, and playing other contact sports can have undesirable consequences too. But unfortunately, hockey appears to up the odds of sustaining a brain injury for players of all ages and abilities.

The physical and mental health of our hockey players—whether they play in peewee or house league, at the varsity or NHL level—has got to be more important than fan titillation and entertainment.

Ken Dryden, former Montreal Canadian goaltender, Maple Leaf president,  and member of Parliament, issued his own call to action to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in The Globe and Mailon December 17th.

If enough reasonable voices are heard, and the NHL knows fans won’t tolerate fighting and head shots—and brain damage to players— they’ll have to change the rules to keep their players healthy and their consumers happy.

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