One of B.C.'s junior hockey leagues has enlisted a specialist doctor to help them more effectively manage player concussions and ensure teenage players are not injured severely.
Dr. Michael Czarnota, a neuropsychologist who works with major junior leagues across Canada, has been tasked with improving the concussion protocols in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL).
The KIJHL is a junior A hockey league that caters to youth between 16 and 20 years old, with 19 teams in the southern Interior of B.C. and one in Washington state.
Its move to improve concussion standards comes amid more research showing the prevalence of concussions in hockey, with the brain injury leading to long-term consequenceseven for youth and junior hockey players.
Dr. Michael Czarnota says coaches would need to evaluate players using a range of memory and concentration exercises to see if they are fit enough to return to the ice, following a suspected concussion. (dotshock/Shutterstock)
"We want to work on making sure that players, coaches, parents, trainers all recognize an injury when they see it," Czarnota told Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South. "That's the most important thing."
The neuropsychologist says there is growing awareness of the head injury among the hockey fraternity, and it is no longer acceptable to put a player back on the ice immediately after a suspected concussion.
"Going back to play while symptomatic just seems to make the injury worse," he said. "We need the players to be symptom-free before they go back to play."
Cory Cameron, the health and safety director for the KIJHL, said Czarnota's appointment would mean the league could design a specific concussion protocol that would best fit its players.
"A lot of our teams are in smaller centres. They might have limitations on some of [the] medical professionals they can access," he said.
"I've already had some conversations with teams that will be tapping into resources with Dr. Czarnota right away, you know, and that's something that's great."
Cameron says there is growing awareness and education among hockey players and officials regarding the prevalence of concussions. (Sergey Kuznecov/Shutterstock)
Czarnota said there has been very little resistance from teams and coaches when it comes to improving concussion care, but he occasionally comes up against parents who do not realize their children need more time away from the ice.
He said he would be monitoring head injury rates as he works on improving standards for concussion care, and would also look to see if re-injury rates go up after a player goes off the ice.
"It's like a broken bone. If you don't give it full time to heal and you go back out there and play, you refracture the bone and you start over," he said. "And that's not where we want to be."
Research shows high rates of concussion
Cameron says that, in his personal experience, he has seen the rate of concussions go up in the 25 years he has been working in the hockey world.
"I don't know if that's because there's more concussions — or because the recognition and the awareness and the education about that injury specifically has increased," he said.
Cameron says the changing speed of the game, the equipment that is being used and the style of play may all factor into concussion rates in hockey.
While there has not been extensive research into concussion rates in junior hockey, a recent analysis of NHL concussion rates found they went up in the five years between 2014 and 2019, compared to a similar time frame from 2006 to 2010.
Ice hockey also had the highest rates of concussions compared to other high school "collision sports," according to a paper that focused on high school boys in Alberta.
The growing awareness of the impacts of concussions has led to other junior hockey leagues in B.C. beefing up their concussion protocols in recent years, including the B.C. Hockey League and the Pacific Junior Hockey League.