An Essay: These Checks Came With Little Value
I can remember the exact moment that hockey as a collision sport ceased to be fun for me.
It was during a fall night in 1986, at Dartmouth’s Thompson Arena during a captain’s practice for the Hanover High hockey team. One of those captains, defenseman Art Stout, was a step behind me as we pursued a puck sliding into the corner.
I was a sophomore, perhaps 5-feet-8 and 120 pounds. Stout was considerably larger, a senior with a justified reputation as one of the toughest defensemen in New Hampshire. With a ragged, floppy haircut and open space where the top two teeth on his upper jaw once sat, he scared the skates right off me.
We were coming in hot, legs churning, arms pumping … and then my 15-year old brain ran a risk analysis of the situation: Art Stout was fully capable of driving me through the boards and into the front row of seats.
So instead of continuing into the corner, I peeled off sharply to one side. Over my shoulder, I heard Stout give a disappointed grunt as his prey escaped in fear. Once you show cowardice on the ice, you’re done, and I was never able to fulfill my dream of playing for the Marauders.
Realizing I wasn’t tough enough for the hitting in high school hockey took a serious bite out of my ego. But when I look back, it was better than further bruises on my brain. I’d been getting knocked around on the ice for the previous couple of years and even to this day I wonder if there are lingering effects.
Twice during my last year of playing in the Hanover Youth Hockey Association, I was hit hard enough to momentarily lose consciousness. One incident occurred during practice, when a teammate who had taken a dislike to me drove his forearm into my head, causing me to partially swallow my tongue.
The second hit came when I was pursuing a Nashua opponent along the edge of the offensive zone at Thompson. Another opponent took a run at me from the side, smashing my head into the dasher boards’ pronounced lip. I had no memory of the impact or being helped off the ice, but the combination of being stunned and not wanting to appear weak prevented me from telling anyone.
A few years later, in one of those wanna-be-macho moments that nearly all teenage boys experience, I got involved in a tackle football game with my freshman dorm mates at the University of Minnesota. A former all-state running back trampled my head into the ground, leaving me dazed for about 24 hours.
If you do a little reading on concussions, it doesn’t take long to discover theories that they can lead to mood swings and depression, which I’ve battled for years. It’s possible those incidents contributed to my struggles, but I have to take ownership for them, regardless of the cause.
What worries me more at this point is what will happen to my son as he progresses through youth sports. He’s a rollicking 8-year-old, boisterous and more than happy to collide with his buddies or inanimate objects during recess.
He’s just in his third year of playing hockey, but it looks like he’s hooked. And it’s only a few years from now that he will be absorbing and dishing out hits of his own.
As a parent and former player, I’m thrilled USA Hockey moved the introduction of body checking from the Peewee to the Bantam level. The argument for youngsters learning to hit and be hit at a younger age is, to me, outweighed by the positives of what can be prevented.
Certainly, that means injury. We can agree that fewer concussions, broken bones or paralysis are a good thing in the 11- and 12-year-old age bracket. But it’s also about keeping the sport fun for a greater number of players for a longer time.
Plenty of boys will discover, as I did, that they aren’t cut out for higher-level, harder-hitting hockey. But why not give them an extra season or two to physically and mentally develop before being tested in that regard?
I want my boy to learn the best game in the world without having to look over his shoulder. To focus on skating, passing, stickhandling and shooting, and to become adept at those skills before he has to worry about colliding with a runaway train.
The kid’s tougher than me, however. If Art Stout comes looking for him, he’ll have a battle on his hands.
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3227.