Commentary: Concussions

Responsibility key for AUS hockey players

Dangerous hits, concussions just not worth it

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St. Thomas captain Mike Reich lies on the ice after a hit from St. FX star Bryce Swan.

Watch an Atlantic University Sport hockey game and chances are there will be a few dangerous hits. Despite new penalties, there has been a dangerous hit roughly every three games this year.

That's leading to concussion problems in AUS, just as it is in other levels of hockey, including the NHL. Only in this case, that creates a problem: concussions mean a lot more to someone studying for a degree.

AUS hockey is like any good hockey: fast. The players have more talent than many think, too. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League offers grants to its players who go on to university, and many of these students go on to play hockey on university teams.

Most AUS players are in their mid-20s, and are older, bigger and stronger than major junior players. With few exceptions, university hockey is the last seriously competitive hockey of a player's career.

Student athletes need to be able to go to work the next day and that's something everybody learns in university. At the same time, the competitive fire still burns: AUS games are intense and the players play with pride. There are very real rivalries, a fair bit of bad blood, reputations and everything else that goes along with serious hockey.

Every dangerous hit in AUS brings a cringe. There will always be unfortunate accidents, like what happened to Brad McConnell. If players are responsible with their hits and their play, accidents can be minimized. AUS hockey is tremendously fun to watch. It should be safe, too.

It's not uncommon for major junior players who come into AUS to take some time adjusting to the standards. Referees call university games tightly: any contact to the head is an automatic penalty, and so is checking from behind. Fighting is completely banned. In major junior hockey, where most NHL players are drafted, almost anything goes as the biggest, best players try to prove they're tough enough to play at the top level.

That mindset has to change when players come to the university game. There has to be a balance between competitive intensity and acceptance that life's focus is different now. That's a hard change to make: athletes develop tremendous ambition, drive and discipline at very young ages in the hope of being the best. AUS hockey needs to be - and already is - mostly for enjoyment. At the end of the day, it's elite amateur, but it's still amateur.

The word "amateur" means someone doing something they love, usually for little or no money. AUS hockey players are both journeymen and apprentices, as they're learning new skills at the same time. These players will go on to coach, referee and administer the game, not to mention work in fields as diverse as engineering, commerce and appropriately enough, dentistry.

It's better if they can do these things in good health, with a brain that's intact. The revelations about concussion medicine this past summer are scary and dentists need to be able to focus properly. No university student should be risking death by age 40 when they're in training to be not only highly-skilled hockey players but highly-skilled members of society.

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