Boogaard's reported brain injury reignites hockey safety debateby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The nationwide conversation about head injuries in youth sports was reignited earlier this month after a report disclosed that late Minnesota Wild hockey player Derek Boogaard had extensive brain injuries, likely as a result of his violent playing style.
Boogaard's job as the Wild's enforcer was to fight on the ice, bare-knuckled and bare-headed, and he was known for being one of the best at that job. He died of a drug overdose in May 2010, but earlier this month the New York Times published a series on the impact of violence on Boogaard's life.
An examination of the player's brain showed advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- or CTE. Scientists believe the disease is linked to concussions and can cause mood swings and addictive behavior.
But making the game safer for kids in Minnesota hasn't come without some push-back.
Fighting isn't allowed in youth hockey, but the combination of speed and hard ice still can lead to kids hurting themselves. Last year at a state youth hockey summit, Mayo Clinic doctors recommended USA Hockey ban intentional collisions, called "body checks," among the youngest players.
But when the no-checking recommendation came up before USA Hockey's Annual Congress this summer, Minnesota was one of the few states to vote against the ban.
Dave Margenau, president of Minnesota Hockey, said dissenters were concerned about how officials would interpret when to call body checking.
"I think there were pockets of resistance to change throughout the state," he said. "I think there were a number of concerns. One was will we have in place the necessary training for the coaches to allow a smooth transition?"
But the new rules were approved at the national level, and Margenau said USA Hockey provided good training for officials and coaches. He says players quickly figured out what would be allowed, and officials have been making the calls when they see the new rules broken.
Hal Tearse, Minnesota Hockey head coach, doesn't completely agree. The rulebook in ice hockey leaves a lot of interpretation on the part of officials.
A few coaches are still pushing their kids to body check -- and that behavior's getting past officials who don't enforce the rules strictly, Tearse said.
"In any activity like this, you have a handful that push the limits as far as they can and unfortunately those coaches and those teams are the ones that get all the notoriety, and quite often, they're very successful," Tearse said.
It's hard to know if the no-checking rule has led to fewer concussions. Minnesota Hockey's regional divisions used to report head injuries to a central unit staffed by a nurse who collected the data. This year, a few of the regional divisions decided to do their own tracking, so there's no centralized system.
For parents at Braemar Arena rink in Edina Friday, safety is a big concern. The seventh and eighth grade hockey players on the ice that day sported bright orange patches on the back of their jerseys, right in between their shoulder blades.
"It's a little stop sign, because people were getting hit from behind and their kids were getting hurt," said Geno Parrish. "So the parents said, 'Hey, if we do this, it's going to raise awareness to not hit from behind.'"
Parrish was there watching his 14-year-old son, Weiland, play on the ice below. He said Boogaard's death was a tragedy.
"But you have somebody who was a human punching bag for several years of his life, and it's going to take its toll on you," Parrish said. "He put himself in harm's way and it's a job that I certainly wouldn't want to have, but he paid the ultimate price for it."
Parrish played eight years in the NHL minor leagues. He says he probably got several concussions.
"They happen all the time, but you just dealt with it. It was part of the game," he said. "You're a competitive kid, you're a violent kid by nature and you just play through it. You don't want people to view you as soft. And some of these kids feel that way."
Parrish tells his son to keep his head up so he doesn't get hurt, and to admit it when he feels bad -- because studies show that playing with a head injury dramatically increases the consequences from a concussion. Weiland dreams of playing in the NHL, but his father recognizes the chances of that are small.
"So I just want him to have a good time as long as he's playing," Parrish said. "In the end this is just a game, right?"
As the number of football and hockey players diagnosed with CTE rises, that's an attitude more parents are adopting, even in Edina, which has one of the strongest youth hockey programs in the state.
It's not clear if the no-checking rule will even make a difference. Michael Stuart , Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon and chief medical officer for USA Hockey points out there's no proven link between concussions and the disease Boogaard had.
"The bottom line is he suffered a very untimely death," Stuart said. "He had some difficulties in his life he was dealing with. Whether or not those were related to traumatic brain injury, I guess we don't really know. He was involved in fighting at a very young age, and youth hockey in the state of Minnesota does not allow that type of action. So I don't think we can equate his experiences in the sport to our young people."
Stuart, who has three sons of his own who play hockey, says clearer answers will only come with time and more research.