Baseline concussion tests ahead in youth hockey

Canadian hockey players as young as 10 years old will be put
through the same concussion testing as NHL players this season.

With high-profile cases involving Pittsburgh Penguins star
Sidney Crosby and others in the news over the last year, concern
about head injuries has filtered down to the youth ranks. A growing
number of leagues are trying to address it.

They include the Minor Oaks Hockey Association, based in the
Toronto suburb of Oakville, which is forcing all 2,600 of its young
athletes playing atom level or higher to go through baseline
testing before the season starts next month.

”If we make it optional and one of the children who does not
take the test gets hurt, we’re still in the weeds, we haven’t
progressed,” association executive Louis Ouellette said Monday.
”We want to make it mandatory. We don’t believe there’s any valid
argument not to take it.”

Minor Oaks is the largest hockey association in Canada to
mandate the neuro-cognitive test, which is conducted by the
Critical Medicine Research Group utilizing the same so-called
ImPACT standard used by the NHL, CFL and virtually every other pro
sports league.

The baseline test is conducted online and takes about 25 minutes
to complete. It provides a detailed clinical report that can be
used by doctors as a comparison point when trying to assess if a
player has recovered from a concussion.

Essentially, the testing is designed to ensure that athletes
don’t return to action too soon.

”A lot of the times you see multiple case concussions and
that’s what you’re trying to avoid,” said John Chehade, director
of sales and marketing for CMRG, which administers the test. ”We
know that 80 percent of concussion cases resolve in seven to 10
days, but how do you know whose in that 80 percent category or
whose in that 20 percent category (that take longer to resolve)
like Sidney Crosby?

”You just don’t know unless you have some sort of objective
measurable data.”

Chehade estimates his company will give baseline tests to as
many as 17,000 youth hockey players across Canada this season.

Minor Oaks has pledged to foot the entire bill for its players –
at $25 per test, it will cost about $65,000 in total – and is
providing it to those from the lowest levels of house league right
through to the top rep teams.

”We’re absorbing the cost within our operating budget because
we feel it’s important,” said Ouellette.

The practice is spreading to other youth sports as well.

For example, the Calgary Bulldogs Football Association is in its
second season of mandatory baseline testing for the 180 players it
has between the ages of seven and 18.

”The kids at this age are at their most susceptible (to
concussions) and no one is doing anything about it,” Bulldogs
board member Terry Andryo said Monday. ”Each kid gets a file just
like a medical situation. Any symptoms or on-field contact is
recorded. What we’d like to do is get it to the point where we’d
like to pass that information on to the next level where that kid
is playing.”

Hockey Canada dedicates a section of its website to concussions
and has developed a six-step protocol for athletes returning from
head injuries. It doesn’t specifically mention passing a baseline
test.

The organization is unable to provide specific numbers on
associations or players who have access to that form of testing,
but it has recently taken several phone calls on the subject from
hockey administrators.

”With all the awareness around concussions and the prevention,
I think a lot of minor hockey associations have certainly locally
gone and looked at baseline testing,” said Todd Jackson, Hockey
Canada’s senior manager of member services. ”From our standpoint,
it’s just another step in the overall return to play process.
They’re taking some steps to make sure their kids are safe.”

The issue took on even more importance for Ouellette when his
son suffered concussions in back-to-back games last year. Like many
parents, he didn’t realize anything was wrong after his son took a
hit in the first game so he encouraged him to play again the next
day.

After those incidents, he started researching concussions in
minor hockey and set about instituting the new policy that takes
effect in Oakville this season.

”I would have done it anyway, regardless of whether my own son
had sustained an injury or not,” said Ouellette. ”I’ve personally
had teammates of my son that have got conflicting diagnoses from
doctors and it baffles me. It baffles me that it can be different
from one child to another. …

”We don’t want to put our children, the players, out in harm’s
way without understanding exactly how to control this and how to
assess whether they’re ready to come back.”