Summit participants say it's time to get fighting out of hockey
Participants in a Mayo Clinic-sponsored summit on ice hockey and concussions agreed Wednesday that getting fighting out of the game is a key step in helping to prevent brain injuries.
"We are going to get fighting out of this game. We are going to get body checking out where it's really, really needed," said Aynsley Smith, a sports psychologist with Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center. "We are going to make evidence-based decisions, and we're going to get outcomes. Together, we can honestly make this happen."
The center hosted the two-day Ice Hockey Summit II to tackle the problem of concussions in hockey. The Rochester summit brought together scientists, coaches, trainers, former athletes and officials to discuss steps for reducing concussions. Participants came up with a list of 15 different priority action items in five areas, including eliminating fighting, increasing restrictions on body checking and working to change the culture of youth hockey.
Dr. Michael Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, said he knows that getting these changes made isn't going to be easy.
"We don't shy away from challenges because they are a tough sell. We have to change behavior, change culture, which is not easy to do," Stuart said.
Former NHL Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden told the approximately 200 gathered at the summit that the future of hockey rests, at least in part, on steps being taken to reduce the risk of serious injury.
"Science has responded to the game on the ice. Now it's up to the game on the ice to respond to the science," Dryden said.
He added that critics who say the game cannot be changed have forgotten that hockey has already evolved. For the first 50 years of the game, passing the puck forward was not allowed.
"It has changed dramatically over time and almost always for the better over time. And we have to believe that it can change," he said.
Besides addressing on-the-ice violence, more needs to be done to help medical professionals identify concussion symptoms, said Dr. Charles Burke, who was the team physician for the Pittsburgh Penguins for 24 years. He recalled one player who suffered a broken nose during a game. An experienced physician examined the player and decided he could return to the ice. The player ended up scoring the winning goal, but was then off the ice for six weeks with significant concussion symptoms.
"The diagnosis of concussion seems so easy," Burke said. "Well. for those of us who are at the rink and making that diagnosis, it's not so easy."
Three years ago, the first Ice Hockey Summit resulted in a similar list of action items. The summit helped build momentum for significant changes to how the game is played, according to Stuart. That included delaying body checking until at least age 13, penalties for all hits to the head and eliminating dangerous acts such as checking from behind. In addition, all USA Hockey coaches must undergo concussion education. Data gathered by Minnesota Hockey/Mayo Clinic showed that those changes led to a steep reduction in checking from behind.
As the summit came to a close, Dr. Bill Roberts took the microphone. The University of Minnesota professor told the crowd that the time has come for action.
"We need to be big. We need to be bold. We need to tell the NHL that fighting needs to go from the game," he said. "We may not be successful, but the message from us has to be there."