Tactic to protect hockey players hurts them, researchers say

A warning line painted on the ice to reduce injuries to hockey players, left, and a normal rink, in Calgary, Alta.,
A warning line painted on the ice to reduce injuries to hockey players, left, and a normal rink, in Calgary, Alta.,  (Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS)  

CALGARY—Researchers say a warning line intended to get hockey players to keep their heads up around the boards has the opposite effect.

The orange metre-wide line painted on the ice along the base of the boards — known as a look-up line — was designed by Thomas E. Smith, a player with the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the United States.

He wanted to remind players to look up before body-checking someone into the boards.

Smith was partially paralyzed when that happened to him. He believes the orange line prompts players to keep their heads up and avoid serious crashes into the boards.

But researchers at the University of Calgary say players in their study actually looked down at the line, which made them more vulnerable to injuries.

“It’s a noble concept and a noble idea and I thought it would be great to find evidence that would support this,” said lead researcher Joan Vickers.

“I’m afraid not.”

The study points to medical evidence that shows if hockey players have their heads down when they are pushed into the boards, they are at greater risk for head, neck and spinal injuries.

“The visual system is powerful, especially in elite athletes, and if you put something unusual or different within the playing environment, that’s going to grab their attention. It’s also going to cause a difference in their behaviours,” said Vickers.

“There isn’t another sport in the world that hits people against boards the way they do in ice hockey and it takes a toll.”

Researchers in the faculty of kinesiology spent a year testing the warning line at the Olympic Oval ice rink with the help of coaches and players from the men’s university hockey team.

Vickers admits she was surprised by the results, given that other sports such as football and baseball successfully use warning tracks to remind players to avoid certain areas.

“This is on the ice. This is in the playing area itself. So let’s imagine you took a metre away from a football field.

“The concept is really great — to warn people — and I often think maybe a narrower line or a line that’s not as big might do the same thing.”

Vickers said there are a number of look-up lines in ice rinks in the Boston area, but she was unable to say how many.

The $50,000 study was funded by USA Hockey, which came to the University of Calgary.

“The Thomas E. Smith Foundation approached USA Hockey’s medical commission and asked them to approve it, and of course they’re not going to approve something like that without evidence, and that’s where we came into the picture,” Vickers said.

More research is needed to look at the actual injury rates during competition and to determine if a different kind of warning could be developed to protect hockey athletes, she suggested.

Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, agreed.

“The presence of a look-up line on the ice surface creates an opportunity for player education on the risk of contact near the boards, as well as injury prevention strategies,” Stuart said in a news release. “However, more research is needed to determine if the look-up line improves safety.”

The study was published in the European Journal of Sport Science.

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