TORONTO – Tammy MacTavish spends almost 30 hours a week in an ice rink.
She has four kids — three sons and one daughter — between the ages of seven and 15, and they’re all avid hockey players.
The game gets rougher as her kids grow up: once they reach the Peewee levels, they begin playing contact hockey and bodychecking is introduced.
Her daughter’s league, for example, doesn’t allow any contact but her 15-year-old son, playing AA and AAA levels, faces the pressure to play aggressively.
“My son is a big kid and they do expect him to throw in checks. As he gets older, fighting is starting to become an issue,” MacTavish told Global News.
The Ottawa mom attends each of her kids’ games and practices. She’s seen it all — concussions, broken ankles, separated shoulders, thrown backs and even broken thumbs and toes.
“It’s not unusual at all,” she says.
Ice hockey is responsible for nearly half of all head injuries that have required a trip to hospital among young Canadians playing in organized sports, a landmark national study says.
The St. Michael’s Hospital study that spans about two decades is the first of its kind to consider what caused these sports injuries.
“I don’t know of any other study of this magnitude. It really is quite a comprehensive look at the problem and then classifying the reasons why these kids came in with brain injuries,” lead author Dr. Michael Cusimano says.
It turns out that much of the time, tactics that could be implemented immediately could prevent these injuries that are so severe they require an emergency room trip.
Until now, Cusimano says that Canadians would guess at what causes these injuries based on anecdotal evidence.
Cusimano is a neurosurgeon and researcher who has worked with patients with brain injuries for the past 25 years.
He looked at almost 13,000 sports-related brain injuries in youth between five and 19 years old between 1990 and 2009.
The data comes from 11 pediatric hospitals and another four general hospitals across Canada.
Credit: St. Mike’s Hospital
Hockey was responsible for forty-three per cent of all the injuries, and almost 70 per cent of those injuries were caused by player-to-player contact or being hit into the boards.
Nineteen per cent of youth suffered brain injuries from playing soccer. Most were between 10 to 19 years old.
With soccer, kids were sent to hospital most because of kicks to the head or head-on-head collisions.
The head injuries in the study included concussions for the most part, followed by intracranial injuries and even skull fractures.
“There is intentional contact in ice hockey,” Cusimano explained.
The sport is also faster than soccer, baseball or rugby, which means that if players are hit, they’re more likely to sustain a brain injury.
Football and rugby made up 12.9 per cent and 5.6 per cent of injuries, mostly because of tackling.
Among young kids, however, baseball was the most dangerous sport because of ball and bat injuries.
Cusimano says he hopes his findings pointing to the most common causes of injuries will inspire change.
Even minor tweaks to these sports’ rules could have prevented some injuries.
In soccer, the youngest groups were getting injured because they were hitting their heads on hard surfaces or goal posts.
“There’s a really straightforward solution here. Padding the goal posts could have potentially prevented a large number of these brain injuries in young children,” he said.
In baseball, kids were too close to the batter. In those cases, Cusimano calls for mandatory parental supervision and helmets.
In hockey, which has garnered plenty of attention in recent years, “fresh ideas” and different perspectives need to be weaved in to break old patterns, Cusimano says.
“The message here is that we need to look at the rules but also how they are being enforced. We need to have stricter enforcement and maybe stronger penalties or incentives,” he said.
Bodychecking from behind has been prohibited for some decades, but it still goes on in the sport, Cusimano says. It easily made up 10 per cent of all injuries.
MacTavish says most injuries she sees while supervising games come from hitting. The problem is, there are little repercussions.
“There’s two minutes here or four minutes there that you have to sit out. It doesn’t mean anything though. There’s no real penalty,” she said.
She said her kids will spend weekends training, but these clinics don’t address how to absorb a hit safely or how to play offence without putting your competitor at risk.
Cusimano says education programs, proper equipment and rules that are taken seriously by parents, coaches and players alike need to be enforced.
His findings were published Thursday in the journal PLoS ONE.