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Philadelphia hockey fans were stunned Wednesday night when 21-year-old Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks scored a goal in overtime to capture the Stanley Cup. It's the kind of moment young hockey players dream about. And when kids watch the game, they'd want to play just like the pros do.
But as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports now, there's a controversy brewing in youth hockey about just how physical the game should be for preteens.
ALLISON AUBREY: There's one move in hockey that's at the center of the controversy: the body check. And if you want to understand just how powerful one can be, consider this moment from an NHL playoff game a few years back.
The Philadelphia Flyers' R.J. Umberger had just received the puck from behind him when the Buffalo Sabres' Brian Campbell caught him off guard and slammed into him.
(Soundbite of hockey game)
Unidentified Man: Flyers looking to oh, terrible, just destroyed Umberger.
AUBREY: In the stadium, the fans went wild. And on the ice, a brawl ensued as Umberger laid on his back receiving medical help.
(Soundbite of hockey game)
Unidentified Man: Brian Campbell absolutely cold-cocked R.J. Umberger.
AUBREY: When Umberger gazed up from the ice, it was with the kind of woozy look that showed he wasn't just down; he was in trouble.
Dr. BARRY WILLER (Concussion Prevention Researcher, University of Buffalo): It's a dramatic hit, yeah, and he looks like he got a concussion. But you'll get several of those a year in the National Hockey League for sure.
AUBREY: Barry Willer is a concussion prevention researcher at the University of Buffalo. He is also a hockey fan and plays the game recreationally. He says despite these dramatic plays, the body check is integral to the sport.
During competitive collegiate and professional games, there can be dozens of checks, and no one gets hurt. But this takes skill, and it takes young players time to develop it.
Dr. WILLER: So when should the youngster learn to body check and to - more importantly, to take a check? That's the controversial issue.
AUBREY: Eleven is the age that leagues across the U.S. typically introduce the body check, but a big new study suggests that this may be too young.
Researchers found that 11-year-olds who played in a hockey league in Alberta, Canada that allowed body checking were much more likely to end up with concussions and severe injuries than the same-aged kids who played on a different league that bans checking.
Dr. ALISON MACPHERSON (Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Health Science, York University): I guess what surprised me was the magnitude of the effect.
AUBREY: Alison Macpherson is a professor at York University in Toronto. She was not involved in this new study, but her own research points to similar conclusions.
Dr. MACPHERSON: The kids who played in Alberta were almost four times as likely to have an injury compared to kids who played in Quebec.
AUBREY: Wow. So almost 400 percent more likely to end up injured, is that right?
Dr. MACPHERSON: Yeah. I think it's that's a big difference.
AUBREY: So how serious are these injuries? David Hovda directs the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. He says generally speaking, athletes usually recover well after a first concussion, but the bigger risk comes when players return to the game too early.
Dr. DAVID HOVDA (Director, Brain Injury Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles): During the time that the brain is trying to recover from the first concussion, we call that a period of cellular vulnerability or brain vulnerability. And when that happens, the brain now can be really severely damaged.
AUBREY: The new study pointing to the specific risks of body checking has the sport really debating possible changes to league rules.
Kevin McLaughlin is senior director for hockey development at USA Hockey.
Mr. KEVIN McLAUGHLIN (Senior Director, Hockey Development, USA Hockey): I think this new information will definitely play a factor with our board of directors and our district representatives in their consideration for when is the right age to implement body checking.
AUBREY: The group just wrapped up its annual meeting this weekend in Colorado Springs, and McLaughlin says there's been plenty of debate on the issue. But he says his group needs time to review all the facts.
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: At the end of the day, it's our number one priority is the safety of the youth athlete because we don't want anybody getting hurt playing the game.
AUBREY: McLaughlin says the earliest any policy change would be made is next summer. In the interim, USA Hockey says it will continue to focus on educating coaches on the best ways to help players develop proper checking skills while at the same time trying to keep them safe.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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