TORONTO — Injury prevention and education programs are being credited in part for the decline in spinal injuries among ice hockey players in Canada.
Soon-to-be published findings from the ThinkFirst Foundation of Canada, which keeps a registry of catastrophic spinal cord injuries, reveal the numbers have dropped considerably in recent years from peaks reached in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The findings were presented Wednesday at the Safe Hockey Summit held at the Hockey Hall of Fame, where representatives from the medical community and hockey officials gathered to discuss concussions and spinal injuries.
ThinkFirst is a charitable foundation dedicated to reducing brain and spinal cord injuries among children and youth.
The findings document more than 300 cases up until 2005, and include any major injury to the spine such as a fracture or dislocation with or without a neurological injury.
Players aged 16 to 20 accounted for the largest group of those injured, representing more than half of the cases.
According to the data, around 65 per cent of the injuries were caused by players smashing into the boards. Collisions with other players, striking the ice or goal post were also cited as causes.
Summit co-chair and ThinkFirst founder Dr. Charles Tator said before rule changes were enforced, there were far more cases of checking or pushing from behind.
Tator said those changes, coupled with getting information out through initiatives like the “Smart Hockey With Mike Bossy” video of the late ’80s and the STOP program (Safety Towards Other Players) have all helped raised awareness about the dangers of the checking from behind.
The fact that a whole range of organizations tried to develop strategies to prevent these catastrophic injuries is a “good news story” in that incidence of cases is going down, he added.
“Instead of having five or 10 each year to deal with, young people who end up in wheelchairs from playing hockey, we now are seeing maybe one or none, so it’s really a good example of injury prevention that works,” he said.
Tator said broken necks were a problem in hockey in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Around 1977, helmets became mandatory in minor hockey. Tator said the timing was of interest because as more kids began wearing helmets, it appeared that there were more broken necks.
But research concluded that it wasn’t the helmet altering the physics or mechanical aspects of the injury, but perhaps that wearing helmets was leading to something called “risk compensation,” Tator said.
“It gives the player a false sense of security, so that with the helmet on, the player thinks he can take greater risks, that they can make a run at the boards or hit an opponent and not hurt themselves. But that’s not true,” he said.
“The helmets really do not cause injury, but perhaps they do cause players to take greater risks, and because of those greater risks they were injuring their necks more frequently.”
Even though there has been a decline, it doesn’t mean the issue is one that should be left alone, Tator said.
“Kids realize now that if they do hit from behind they can really hurt somebody. I’m very happy that that message is getting through to most people, but it doesn’t mean we can let up, because next year, there’s going to be a whole new generation of players that have to learn that same message.”
The event also saw the official launch of a new skill enhancement program aimed at reducing concussion and spinal injuries.
Play It Cool, part of the Canadian Spinal Research Organization’s Shoot For a Cure campaign, includes an online curriculum for coaches allowing them to interact, download materials from experts and participate in discussion boards.
“In this Environment, we’ve created a context to share best practices, and through those best practices, we’re hoping to pull together enough critical information to create standard practices,” said Malcolm Sutherland, director of hockey development for Play it Cool.
Copyright © 2008 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.