The tragic injury to Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore Jack Jablonski has intensified focus on safety in youth hockey, but a letter to the editor today is a worthwhile reminder that the debate has been around for decades.

The central question remains: Does hockey need a change in its rules or in its culture? Banning checking from youth hockey might increase player safety, but critics claim this would leave players unprepared and vulnerable when they reach ages at which checking is permitted. Others suggest that the rules are fine, but that coaches need to do a better job of teaching and emphasizing legal contact and that refs need to do a better job of penalizing illegal hits.

An update to this blog Wednesday morning: Minnesota Hockey President Dave Margenau wrote an open letter this week with safety recommendations to coaches, referees and players. One of the recommendations to coaches: "Before every game and practice remind your hockey players of the dangers of checking from behind and to eliminate any such hits." 

You can read the rest of his letter here: http://www.minnesotahockey.org/news_article/show/128059?referrer_id=80470

The online letter also links to a Minnesota Hockey video created in December on the dos and donts of body contact and checking for young hockey players.

Twenty years ago, public health researcher Janny Brust studied the risks and reached a simple conclusion: checking should be banned until players are at least 16. Her research team followed nine Richfield hockey teams (ages 9 to 15) over one season and found that one in three players suffered some type of injury. Sixty percent of the checking-related injuries involved some form of illegal hits or contact, the researchers found. Few of the damaging hits resulted in penalties.

The response to her checking ban idea was lukewarm -- to be polite. A Star Tribune article from 1992 summed it up:

Gary Gibbons, the risk manager for the Minnesota branch of
hockey's national governing body, said: "We're interested in the
study, but I'm not sure it will be warmly accepted in the hockey
community.

"The likelihood of banning checking until age 16 is slim and
none. Checking and receiving a check is a skill like puck handling
and if you can't develop that skill until you are 16, you might as
well forget it."

Brust at least wanted checking banned from the peewee level (ages 11 and 12) because of the vast differences in athleticism and body types at that age. USA Hockey didn't make that wholesale change to ban checking at the peewee level until 2011. The Minnesota delegation opposed that controversial decision. (The vote only governed boys' hockey. Checking is already banned at all levels of girls' hockey.)

Brust first studied this issue as a researcher at the University of Minnesota. She now works at the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. Her interest came unexpectedly in the early 1990s after her son was injured at practice by a stick to the face. Her son's coach had conducted the practice without any players wearing helmets. Brust asked one of her graduate students to run to the library and look up existing research on youth hockey injuries. The grad student found very little.

Whether checking is banned at higher age levels, Brust hopes the current concern will result in meaningful safety improvements to avoid further "deja vu." One of the earliest studies on youth hockey injuries, she noted, came from a University of Minnesota researcher in 1982 after three local players suffered neck fractures.

"At least in terms of the parents and coaches and kids, they kind of cycle through," she said. "The ones that are involved right now don't know that this is deja vu. This is new to them. The hockey leaders? They know it's deja vu."

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