Due to its physicality, high impact, and high speed, hockey is widely regarded as a collision sport. As such, whether you are an experienced player or someone trying the sport for the first time, it’s imperative to be aware of all of the nuances of the game in order to avoid potential injury.
Before Stepping on the Ice
First, when looking at equipment in hockey, you’re going to need basic necessities for play such as a helmet, mouthpiece, shoulder and shin pads, and skates. If you’re a goalie, you will also need a blocker and different type of stick. Because you never know when a young player is going to have a growth spurt, it is highly recommended to check pads and other gear once or twice a season for appropriate fitting. For instance, shoulder pads should fit correctly so that your collarbone, upper chest, back, upper arms and shoulders are protected. Also, hockey pant length should come down to the knee cap center and the kidney collar should fully cover the organ.
Hockey requires its players to play more games than other collision-type sports. As a result, the cumulative effects of a season can play a factor in potential injury. The groin, pelvic, and torso regions are at an increased risk for both traumatic and overuse injuries. Collisions and hits against the boards can result in shoulder injuries such as dislocations or subluxations. The boot tends to protect the ankle, but if you slide into a rigid board, players can sustain fractures to the ankle. Ill-fitting skates can cause blisters and pressure sores, which can inhibit a player from skating pain-free.
Lastly, concussion awareness is highly prevalent. In order to be cleared, players must undergo a concussion protocol process, which involves a progression from something as easy as a bike ride or stretch to game simulation. If they happen to get a headache, nausea, or double vision during activity, they are required to stop. For parents, clearance is especially important. Physician clearance of a young athlete from a concussion will have other factors considered than that of the mature player. Although impact forces in their demographic may be different from their mature counterparts, they also lack muscular strength for absorption of these forces. Something as simple as a proper fitting helmet will be a factor in preventing concussions.
Players undergo a screening program where weaknesses and imbalances can be identified. An athlete that is hockey dominant on their left side should train differently than someone who is dominant on their right. In addition to movement and strength based testing, performance variables such as sleep, heart rate, recovery rate, sweat loss, travel, and dietary intake are monitored as a means to use every available resource to make sure players are remaining healthy. It’s important for players to make an effort to communicate with their coaches to address any issues.
Return to Play
Hockey players are blessed with unbelievable DNA and have the ability to recover quickly and better than most athletes. Once a player is injured, they enter the acute phase, which occurs as soon as the injury takes place. Swelling of the affected area can affect a player’s range of motion and ability to activate muscle. Once they can engage in bilateral or single weight bearing activities without pain or compensation, they are ready to return to the ice and a modified weight room routine. Also, for most teams, players skate in different colored jerseys, which helps identify their practice contact status.
Over the past few years, there’s been a push for specialization, meaning that athletes are focusing on playing only one sport. I highly encourage athletes, especially young athletes, to participate in at least 2 or 3 sports as it allows for new movement patterns, especially in the developmental state. It also gives the body a rest from repetition. If you’re a pitcher and you only pitch without any form of cross training, your arm is eventually going to break down. In the instance of hockey, if you skate all year long, you’re likely to sustain overuse injuries to the hip and groin. Ensuring that young athletes are having fun while developing the basic skills and fundamentals will help them have the skill set needed to successfully compete at the next level.
Pete Draovitch, PT, MS, ATC, CSCS, SCS, is the Clinical Supervisor for the Center for Hip Preservation at Hospital for Special Surgery. In addition to being licensed as a physical therapist, he has master’s degrees in both sports medicine and physical therapy and is certified as a NATA athletic trainer and a NCSA strength and conditioning specialist. Draovitch has worked with professional and world class athletes of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA Tour and NCAA, including the NCAA 1987 & 1989 football National Champion Miami Hurricanes, MLB Montreal Expos and MLB St. Louis Cardinals.