Note: This story appears in the March 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Hockey players are as indigenous to the Great White North as geese. Why, then, is Canada suddenly suffering from a shortage of skaters? Economic woes (youth hockey costs about $5,000 per season) and competing options for kids have factored into the decline in participation. But the most powerful reason may be the increase in injuries -- most notably concussions.
It doesn't help that the latest off-ice headlines are about late enforcer Bob Probert's game-induced brain damage, and the NHL's brightest star, Sidney Crosby, remaining sidelined indefinitely with a concussion.
Crosby was hit hard at the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 but continued to play despite neck pain. Four days later he was hit again. He wobbled to the bench and has yet to return. "Crosby is a marvelous player and a good kid, but the reality is he may never be the same," said Charles Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon, at the Reebok-CCM Safety Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, last month. "We just don't know." Tator, who hasn't treated Crosby, is the president of ThinkFirst Canada, a foundation that advocates preventive measures for brain and spinal-cord injuries.
The medical community doesn't yet fully understand the effects of concussions, but the kids are learning fast. Canada's The Globe and Mail recently featured one, Markus Klaise, a 10-year-old member of Ontario's Triple-A Mississauga Rebels. Klaise knows enough to know his hero Crosby is dizzy and weak, and if the best player in the world can suffer a brain injury, it can happen to him too. Next year, Klaise graduates from Atoms to Pee Wees, where body checks are allowed.
"These boys live and breathe hockey, so to see Crosby out of the game for so long really hits home," says Markus' mom, Edite Ozols, a psychologist who works with traumatic brain injury patients. "Markus was looking forward to checking. He still is, but there's fear now. He is afraid to get hit in the head, and it's because of Crosby."
Currently, enrollment in Hockey Canada-approved youth teams is about 560,000 players, down from a peak of 584,679 in 2008-09. "If we continue to do what we're doing, we're going to have 360,000 members by 2020-21," says Hockey Canada official Glen McCurdie. "It's time to change."
Unfortunately, Hockey Canada is trying to figure out how to repopulate the game instead of altering its rules to make it safer. The group recently translated its annual recruitment mailer into 12 languages to target immigrant and First Nations children when it should have been following the lead of one of its member organizations. Decades ago, Hockey Quebec upped its checking age to the 13- and 14-year-old Bantams. The difference: better on-ice safety, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Pee Wee players in Quebec were 3.26 times less likely to suffer any injury and 3.88 times less likely to suffer a concussion than their body-checking compatriots in Alberta. USA Hockey, which has seen a rise in participation the past three years, is expected to increase the checking age from 12-and-under to 14-and-under.
"Hockey in this country is killing itself," says Emile Therien, former president of the Canadian Safety Council and father of retired NHLer Chris. "Kids are bailing on the game. In two years, more American kids will be playing hockey than Canadian kids."
And that should concern the NHL, particularly considering that more than 50 percent of its players hail from Canada. The league's Rule 48 may ban blind-side hits to the head, but debate continues over whether head shots should be outlawed altogether, as they are in international hockey. The bottom line is the culture of safety trickles down from the highest level to the lowest, and hockey-rabid, NHL-worshipping kids such as Klaise emulate what they see on TV. And in Canada, the NHL is always on.
Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine