Paul Eliason’s research is going to give local youth the chance to play the sports they love while staying safe and protected. PHOTO CREDIT: CAROLYN EMERY

Paul Eliason, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sport Injury Prevention Research Center in Calgary, has spent much of his career examining ways in which youth athletes can be better protected while playing contact sports. While most of his research involves the minor hockey community, Eliason hopes that athletes across all sports are able to play — free from injury — well into their adulthood. 

Curious about body checking rules and regulations that have been implemented into the minor hockey system across Calgary, reporter Matt DeMille caught up with Eliason to discuss changes.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

I read a few of your research papers that you published and, at least for me, one of the biggest takeaways that I took from them is that there’s not really a difference in injury rate based on the level of experience in body checking among youths in a specific age group. From that kind of concept, why is this important for the audience to know?

That shows that if you take body checking out, you’re gonna reduce injury and you’re going to reduce concussions and that was well established in the under-13 age group, and actually, I didn’t mention this, but it’s also been shown at non-elite levels play in the older age groups. The under-15 and under-18 age groups also have significantly reduced injury rates if you take it out at non-elite levels in those older age divisions. That’s great, but I think everybody can understand that if you take body checking out, you’re gonna prevent injuries and concussions. But, the belief in the hockey community was, “Well, okay, if you take body checking out now, are these players when they’re going into the next age group or when they’re a little bit older and then they’re first introduced to body checking, are their rates of injury and concussion going to be really high because they have no experience with body checking?” So, the belief in the community was that potentially introducing body checking earlier, giving that experience to body checking earlier would help prevent injuries and concussions later on. In our follow up work, we actually showed that that wasn’t true. That, at the under-15 and under-18 age groups, more body checking experience wasn’t protective, that it didn’t reduce injuries or concussions. So, it kind of goes against what the hockey community believed.

Why is there no correlation between experience and a lower risk of injury?

It’s hard to answer. We don’t know why there’s no difference, but the more important thing is that we’re showing there is no difference. That’s really the more important takeaway because that’s really just giving more support for taking body checking out at either or all of under-13 or potentially at non-elite levels of play in the older age groups.

Going back to the statistic where there’s no correlation, would you say the players themselves are not being educated well enough?

We don’t have a lot of research in that area, specifically. I would say that for those players that do play in a body checking league, it’s certainly an important skill to develop and part of that is taking body check development camps and working on body checking how to give and receive a check safely with a coach in practice and drills. We don’t have a lot of research to go into how much of that training is required or is beneficial. But, I mean, that’s certainly an opportunity for future research.

Is there one thing that you had in mind that can be done to better educate parents and coaches on the topic of concussions in youth hockey?

Obviously trying to get the research into the community, that’s why the Sport Injury Prevention Research Center has very close partnerships with not only local, provincial, and national hockey associations. Trying to get that research into the community setting so that not only can those hockey associations make evidence informed decisions, but also so they can relay that information to parents and coaches so they’re aware of the research, right? So, any policy change that is made, or any change that’s made is hopefully evidence informed and they can show that to them so that they have the evidence as well. The research is one piece, but also just a general knowledge of concussion awareness is important for parents and coaches, which we’re starting to see across the media. That’s really great because parents and coaches are part of the process to help recognize and remove players that have a suspected concussion. The more aware that they are about concussions the more likely we can capture these players that might have suspected concussions and then remove them from play and then have them follow up with their medical doctor for potentially a diagnosis.

Is there one thing that can still be done to better protect youth from head injuries while at play?

Policy I think is still kind of the “low-hanging fruit.” Just because there’s so many hockey associations across Canada and potentially some of them still allow body checking at all levels of under-15, under-18 age groups. So I think there’s potentially opportunities to have some non-elite level and non-elite divisions at play without body checking across Canada. I think that’s one avenue. Away from policy, there are some other ways we can help prevent concussions further. We have some research to support the use of wearing mouth guards to help prevent concussions. There’s some evidence to support a proper helmet fit, and that’s specific to ice hockey. If we steal some research from some other sports there’s some support for use of a neuromuscular warmup program. So these programs include components of aerobic strength, agility and balance, and if you can incorporate a head and neck component that’s helped to show some reduced concussion rates as well. That’s specifically in rugby, but I think there’s an opportunity to evaluate some of that research within an ice hockey context as well.

At what point will you be satisfied in the protection of youth hockey players when it comes to body checking and resulting head injuries?

We’ve come a long way and I think as a research program, the Sport Injury Prevention Research Center led by Dr. Emery, I’m really proud of the work that has been done. But, we’re not just satisfied, it doesn’t just end here. Research is endless, so I think there’s continued research we can do to further protect players from injury and concussions and not only in ice hockey but in all sports. And that kind of boils back to why I got involved in this. If we can keep kids healthy, if we can keep them in the sport that they love playing, then they’re going to participate hopefully for longer and as they continue into their adulthood. So it’s never ending. I guess we’re happy, but we’re not satisfied because we always have more research we can do and research to be done.

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