With non-stop action and high-speed team play, hockey is a great sport for kids. Sometimes called "the fastest game on ice," it's a great way to get exercise, and with youth and adult programs throughout the country, chances are no matter what your child's age or skill level, there is a league near you to play in.
As fun as it is, though, hockey carries a very real risk of injury. To keep your kids as safe as possible, follow these tips.
Why Hockey Safety Is Important
At its highest levels, from high school to college to the NHL, hockey allows "checking," an action that involves a player colliding with an opposing player to stop his forward momentum. This can lead to numerous injuries from players hitting one another or colliding with the ice surface or the boards that line the rink. Even in so-called "no-check" leagues, there will always be a lot of contact. Falls are very common, and ice is just as hard as concrete to land on.
In addition, with every player carrying a stick and wearing sharpened skates, accidents are bound to occur. There's also a good chance that sooner or later kids will get hit by the puck, which is made of hard rubber and can leave a nasty bruise if it catches them in the wrong spot. And, since hockey involves strenuous physical activity, pulled muscles and sprains are a hazard for players who don't warm up and stretch properly.
Getting In Gear
Before kids start playing hockey, it's very important to get them all the right equipment and make sure they know how to put it on and use it correctly. Skates and a helmet are a good place to start, but there is a lot more they'll need to wear to keep themselves safe.
Never let your child play a game of hockey without:
- Helmet — When it comes to preventing serious injuries, this is the most important piece of equipment. Helmets should be certified by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) and should include a full facemask with a protective chin cup and a chin strap. Make sure to get your kids a helmet that fits properly, and insist that they always keep the chin strap fastened and tightened to ensure that the helmet stays in place.
- Skates — As with helmets, be sure to get your kids skates that fit well. They're going to lace them up tight, so the wrong size skates can really hurt their feet. Skates should offer plenty of ankle support and have a steel or hard plastic toe cup. It's also important to keep skates sharp so they perform better and are less likely to get caught in ruts in the ice.
- Shoulder pads, elbow pads, knee and shin pads — These are all specific to hockey. Soccer or lacrosse equipment won't give the protection needed. Lower leg (knee and shin) pads should have a hard plastic exterior and reach the top of your child's skates.
- Hockey pants — Also called breezers, these should reach to the knee and offer padding in the front, rear, and sides of the upper legs and midsection.
- Gloves — Another sport-specific item, hockey gloves should allow for mobility while protecting well past the wrist.
- Athletic supporter and cup — These are incorporated into most hockey undershorts these days but can also come from other sports.
- Neck protector — Although some leagues don't require them, neck protectors are helpful at guarding against wayward hockey sticks and skate blades.
- Mouthguard — These not only protect the teeth, but also the lips, cheeks, and tongue, and can help prevent jaw injuries.
Charged with putting their bodies between flying pucks and the goal, hockey goalies need a whole different set of equipment to keep themselves safe. Helmets, skates, neck guards and athletic protectors and cups are all different for goalies than they are for other positions.
In addition, goalies should always wear:
- Leg pads — These should always be the correct length and be thick enough to protect against even the hardest slapshot.
- Arm pads and chest protector — Arm pads should reach all the way to the wrist. Chest protectors should wrap slightly around the sides to keep a child's entire front well armored.
- Blocker glove — This glove should allow your child's fingers to grip the stick easily but be very thick and cover most of the forearm.
- Catcher glove — Similar to a first baseman's glove in baseball, catcher gloves should have thick padding over the wrist and palm and should also come well up the forearm.
Before the Puck Is Dropped
Everything kids do during a hockey game will be done while they are skating, so be sure they know how to skate well before they play a game. Most rinks offer learn-to-skate classes and open skating sessions when they can practice. Kids should know how to stop, turn, and get up when they fall. It's also helpful for them to know how to skate, stop, and turn while skating backwards.
Once you feel they're good enough skaters and they've got the proper equipment and know how to use it, they'll be ready to hit the ice. Before games, hockey players generally skate around the rink a few times to warm up. Kids should use this time to loosen their joints and stretch their muscles. Some skaters warm up and stretch before getting on the ice.
Important muscle groups to stretch before a game include:
- Hip and groin — Kids can stretch out the groin area while skating by bending knees and extending one leg out to the side. The front of the hip can be stretched by dragging one foot behind and getting low to the ice.
- Back and torso — Shooting the puck, which your child will hopefully be doing a lot of, subjects midsections to a strenuous twisting motion that most people aren't used to doing. Trunk twists while holding the stick in front, and toe touches can also be done while skating around the rink.
- Hamstrings — Have kids use the side boards of the rink to swing legs forward and back to help stretch hamstrings and hip flexors.
Keeping it Safe During a Game
There's a reason why tripping, hooking, slashing, high-sticking and cross-checking bring penalties. Hockey sticks can easily go from being a piece of equipment to being a dangerous weapon. Be sure that your kids know all the rules governing the use of sticks and follow them to the letter. You wouldn't want them to get hit by someone else's stick, and no one wants to get hit by theirs.
Other penalties designed to keep the game safe involve roughing, boarding, and checking from behind. These all have to do with players colliding with one another. If your kids' league allows checking, make sure they know the difference between a legal check and an illegal one, and be adamant that they never hit anyone from behind. If they play in a "no-check" league, it means just that: no checking.
As far as fighting is concerned, players in the NHL may throw off their gloves and start punching one another, but if your child does it, he or she can expect to pay a harsh penalty. Almost every youth league will kick players out of the game and suspend them for at least one more game for their first fighting penalty. They won't just be hurting themselves; they'll be letting their team down. Don't allow fighting of any kind.
Also, never let your kids play a game of hockey without adult supervision. Even if they follow every safety tip, accidents can still happen. There should always be a stocked first-aid kit and a responsible adult on hand in the event of an injury or other emergency. Likewise, be sure to have their games officiated by certified referees who are familiar with the specific rules of the league.
Playing a game of hockey with friends on a frozen pond can be lots of fun, but ponds present their own unique set of safety problems. An adult should always check the ice to make sure it's thick enough to support the weight of kids before they're allowed play, and they should stay away from any parts of the pond or lake where it looks like the ice may be thin. Tell your kids that if a puck goes in a suspect area, they should just let it go. They can always get another puck. It's not worth the risk of hypothermia or drowning for them to go after it.
Frozen ponds also go hand in hand with very cold temperatures. Be sure your kids wear plenty of warm clothing in addition to all their hockey gear anytime they play outdoors, and if they're playing on a sunny day, be sure they use sunscreen on their faces. The sun's rays reflecting off ice and snow can be very intense.
Now that you know the best ways to keep your kids safe, encourage them to get out there and hit the ice. Hockey is a great game that they'll want to play for as long as they can. Just remember that accidents and injuries can still occur no matter how prepared they are. Make sure your kids follow these tips, though, and you can minimize their risk significantly.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014
Originally reviewed by: Kathleen B. O'Brien, MD