New research shows that rule changes can spare high school ice hockey players from serious injury without altering the game’s competitive nature. The results point to new and effective ways of safeguarding countless student-athletes who play full-contact sports.
Ice hockey is one of the most physical collision sports. Of the nearly 45,000 players who play at the high school level in the U.S., about 12,000 seek care in emergency departments for injuries suffered on the ice. Despite strategies to curb malicious play, the potential for serious head, neck, and spinal injury remains high, as players are still allowed to body check opponents.
One promising tactic is to set a penalty-minute threshold for players who incur excessive penalties. This so-called “Fair Play” approach has been shown to reduce hockey player injuries without compromising competitive play—though only at the scale of a single tournament. To test just how effective Fair Play rules can be, researchers looked at how a critical addition to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Ice Hockey rule book played out over the course of 6 seasons.
The addition placed a hard cap on the number of penalty minutes players could accrue before being suspended: 50 or more penalty minutes in a season would result in a two-game suspension; players racking up more than 70 penalty minutes would be suspended for the remainder of the season, including playoffs.
The results were significant.
Before the Fair Play rule was implemented, the emergency departments of five area hospitals in Rhode Island treated 51 injuries due to body checking. After, only 31 such injuries were reported. The number of concussions alone was more than halved: dropping from 27 to 13.
It is possible that healthcare staff failed to link certain injuries directly to body checking. That could have artificially deflated the figures recorded after the Fair Play rule was added. To be sure, more work with a larger sample is needed.
But the findings are promising. Given recent research focusing on repeated head impacts as a potential risk factor for degenerative brain disease, measures to better protect players’ health are in order. Fostering a culture of Fair Play on the ice and beyond could be one way to keep the millions of student-athletes who participate in collision sports playing safe.