The IIHF, Concussions, and No-Check Hockey

IIHF promotes the history of women’s hockey, makes sweeping proclamations about the impact of the ban on body checking

The IIHF did a series on the top 25 stories related to women’s hockey as a lead-in to the Women’s Worlds – the final story, on Canada winning gold in Sochi, was released on the day of the championship game. This is fantastic – the international federation is promoting women’s hockey and sharing the history of the women’s game with the world. I hope this keeps happening, and more organizations follow suit and publish interesting series that chronicle the history of women in their respective sports and locales.

However, some of what the IIHF wrote comes off as nothing more than propaganda defending their own decisions while making sweeping, unsupported claims. The 14th story details the removal of body checking from women’s hockey and the continuation of that rule change. As noted in the article, body checking used to be allowed in women’s hockey – it was banned internationally for the 1992 Women’s World Championship (after being allowed in 1990). It had been banned in some places (mainly North America) prior to this tournament, under the auspices of increasing participation and making the game safer. ((Etue & Williams, 1996: On the Edge: Women Making Hockey History))

The rationale was that by taking checking out of the game, players of different skill level could play against each other more easily without as much of a fear of injury. As the sport has grown and evolved, both in terms of participation numbers and level of play, the rule has held constant. As noted in the article, the game is known as one of more skill and finesse than the men’s game, but body contact is still part of the game, and the difference between body checking and body contact is a fine and very gray line. And here is where my issues with the article begin.

The article makes sweeping statements about the current state of the game, and how checking impacts it, that are not supported by or are seemingly contradictory to the data that does exist. In their discussion about the skill and finesse of the women’s game without checking, they state that “Players must use positioning and speed to gain puck possession. The use of the boards for body-checking is almost non-existent.” Yes, the women’s game is about speed, positioning and puck possession – Jack Han showed the increased puck possession of the McGill Martlets in the CIS, though unfortunately, there’s very little other women’s hockey analytics of this detail. However, their statement about body checking is unsupported in their article and possibly contradictory to the data. I cataloged all of the penalties from the Sochi Olympics and ran some basic frequencies. Body checking accounted for 26 of the 180 (14%) of the penalties, and if cross-checking (8) is included, checking accounted for 19% of the penalties. That’s almost one in five penalties that were for checking.

[A]lmost 1 in 5 penalties were for checking [at the Sochi Olympics].

While this is down from the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where body checking was 21% of the penalties and checking (including cross-checking and checking from behind) was 28% of the total penalties, it is still a significant amount of checking penalties. In this year’s IIHF tournament, body checking (19) and cross-checking (5) accounted for 24 out of 187 penalties (13%). These numbers represent only what is called, and not the above-the-angling and other physical play that occurs without being formally called.

[At this year’s Women’s World Championship,] body checking (19) and cross-checking (5) accounted for 24 out of 187 penalties (13%).

The commentators, including former players, during the last Olympics mentioned that there is a higher level of physical contact allowed now within the women’s game than previously, which is something that I have anecdotally noticed as well. Compared to these numbers and comments, the IIHF statement is seemingly trying to hide the fact that checking does occur not infrequently in women’s hockey games (unless they’re being overly specific and only talking about checks into the boards and not counting open ice hits in that statement, information the game summaries don’t tell me).

The IIHF statement is seemingly trying to hide the fact that checking does occur not infrequently in women’s hockey games.

I will also note that in the IIHF game summaries for this tournament, body checking penalties are being listed as “illegal hits.” The past Olympics (organized by IIHF) have listed them as “body checking.” While I do not know what prompted this linguistic decision, it could be perceived as another way of hiding the reality that checking does occur in women’s hockey. By calling it an illegal hit, unless you are aware that means body checking, it is not clear that this is what this call means. Without denoting it as checking, how are we to know the difference between an illegal hit and roughing (which is defined as an illegal hit, generally after the play or overly aggressive, in the IIHF rule book). Renaming the penalty seems to serve as another way of advancing the IIHF’s apparent agenda of blindly maintaining the rule, as it hides the fact that it is actually a penalty for an action allowed – and expected – within the men’s game.

The IIHF piece continues on to discuss the argument regarding correlation between checking and injuries. They state, “Critics of the women’s game argue that hitting is an inherent part of the game, and recent studies which show that women are more prone to concussions in sports also perhaps suggest that a cause for this is the lack of practice with physical contact (if one expects a hit, one is prepared for it; if one isn’t expecting a hit, the results can be more damaging). However, in ice hockey the injury rate is lower for women than for men also due to the no-hitting rule.” There is a debate about whether banning checking decreases injury by taking some of the physicality out of the game or increases it as players do not expect the hits when they do happen. Both sides make sense in theory.

However, the final statement regarding injury rate does not makes sense, and I do not know where they are getting that statistic from. If they are talking general injuries and using something like the Olympics, they are comparing men that are in the middle of an NHL season to women who are solely preparing for the Olympics and two totally different games. Unfortunately there is no way to get good data on this because there are no full check women’s leagues to compare statistics with. I would also argue that due to size, strength, and general difference in playing style it is inappropriate to unquestioningly use male statistics, particularly when men in non-check leagues were still likely to have training in full check hockey and thus better prepared to receive unexpected hits.

Even if the general injury rate is lower, as they claim, they have no evidence of the causation between the rule and the injuries, and are thus exaggerating their claim to defend their decision to maintain the rule. However, if the sentence is referencing the concussions mentioned in the first line of that quote, it is a straight up lie. The most recent data coming out of the NCAA shows that the varsity sport with the highest rate of concussions is women’s hockey. Women’s hockey experiences more concussions than any other sport, more than men’s hockey, more than football, etc. at the college level.

Women’s hockey experiences more concussions than any other sport, more than men’s hockey, more than football, etc. at the college level … Nobody is quite sure yet why.

Nobody is quite sure yet why women experience more concussions; there are only some theories and ongoing research. But as of right now, in ice hockey, the concussion rate is higher for women than for men, even with the no-hitting rule. In the next article of the series, the IIHF tells the story of Kessel’s concussion, which was the result of an uncalled hit. While they talked about the seriousness of concussions, they again seemed to ignore the frequency of concussions in women’s hockey, despite the no-hitting rule, with statements like “Kessel’s has brought home a worrying fact in women’s hockey – that concussions can also happen in the women’s game.”

I applaud the IIHF for trying to raise awareness of women’s hockey and teach people about some of the history of the game. However, I wish they would not use this as a place to make sweeping statements that they cannot, or choose not to, back up with facts. This is a disservice to the women’s hockey community, who deserve to know the reality of their game. The IIHF is obviously invested in maintaining the rule, and thus looking at the impact of it through rose-colored glasses is beneficial to that cause.

This is a disservice to the women’s hockey community

However, doing so may be misleading to the public, including their players, prospective players, and their supporters, and does a disservice to their cause and to the continued growth of the game. While it could be argued that talking about concussions could make people wary of playing hockey, I argue that if the IIHF stuck to the facts and eschewed these sweeping statements, there would be more awareness of the issues, and the IIHF could help to support the ongoing research and discussions on prevention and treatment of concussions.

[T]he more organizations that actively engage in the research and discussion [of concussions], the more able we will be to grow all sports in a safe manner.

Sports currently need more information on all aspects of concussion, and the more organizations that actively engage in the research and discussion, the more able we will be to grow all sports in a safe manner. By moving beyond the sweeping statements, the IIHF could also consider conducting research on the actual impacts of the ban on checking on the current game and the growth of the game moving forward.