Hockey is actually a very safe sport, especially at the youth level. At 8U, the reported risk of injury for 8U/mites is extremely low at 0.8 per 1,000 hours.
Kevin Margarucci can attest to that. As a hockey coach, parent, player, official, and certified athletic trainer for more than 20 years, Margarucci was recently named USA Hockey’s manager of player safety.
As the season begins, he shared some thoughts on player safety at 8U, which can set the table for a lifelong love of the sport.
Proper-fitting equipment is a crucial component of player safety. It’s easy to look forward and buy bigger gear knowing your child will grow, but loose-fitting equipment can leave your child vulnerable. Make sure everything fits, from skates all the way up to the helmet and mouthguard, which are key to preventing head injuries.
If you’re unsure or have questions, ask the workers at your local hockey store or the coaches in your association.
A national focus on concussions, as well as overall head and neck injuries, have dominated the safety discussion for sports at every level – a point not lost on Margarucci. To help keep players safe, USA Hockey developed the Heads Up! Don’t Duck! safety initiative.
When your child is around the boards or about to fall, they should always keep their head up to avoid contact.
WATCH: Olympians Jenny Potter and Ryan Suter on Heads Up! Don’t Duck!
Playing the Right Way
Penalties and punishment aren’t the only ways to deter dirty plays, says Margarucci. They’re clearly a part of prevention, but at 8U, the focus needs to be teaching young players to play the right way – a concept built into USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
The reality is that age-appropriate development helps keep children safe while teaching them proper skills, including body contact.
“The ADM is about skill development,” Margarucci said. “We work with kids to develop their skating and their awareness on the ice, and proper body contact, both giving and receiving, is part of that skill development. When they’re developing those skills, they’re aware of where they are and where other players are. Really teaching kids how to play the game correctly helps them avoid bad positions and plays that lead to injury, whether it’s to themselves or other players.
“We can hand out severe penalties for any kind of dangerous play, and we should. But the focus on skill development and skating means players are ready to start body-checking properly by the time they reach the 14U/bantam level, where body-checking is part of the game.”
Learning Body Contact
Even at the lowest levels of youth hockey, players are making contact with each other. Small-area games and cross-ice hockey help players develop skating skills and puck skills and they also teach them to play in close quarters. As boys and girls gain comfort playing in small areas, they gain comfort with regular, natural contact without playing recklessly.
Built into USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program is the progression of body contact at each age level. By teaching players at a young age, they’ll grow to play the game safely and effectively.
“The big thing is that hockey is a contact sport, but the goal of a body-check or any kind of check is separating the player from the puck,” Margarucci said. “It’s not to put another player two rows into the stands. Playing the game the right way means checking is done for the purpose of separating player from puck. Hockey is a contact sport, but it’s doesn’t have to be a dangerous one.”
Early Specialization Increases Injury Risk
Margarucci and sports medicine professionals agree that early specialization carries a higher injury risk for kids. He along with USA Hockey and the USOC agree that specialization is dangerous for young athletes.
“Working with teenage athletes for so long, I’ve seen kids who have spent five years or so playing only one sport,” Margarucci said. “Study after study has shown that specialization doesn’t improve a kid’s chances at moving onto the next level and can actually reduce their long-term athletic potential, whether it’s about injuries from overuse or just not building a wide base of skills and athleticism. Time spent playing lacrosse or any other sport helps a young boy or girl become a better athlete overall, so they’re more physically prepared when the skill level goes up.”
So while you and your 8U player may love hockey, encourage them to take a break from hockey in the offseason and play other sports to develop overall athleticism, recharge their batteries and prevent overuse injuries.