When the London Knights hold their annual Teddy Bear Toss tonight, seven-year-old Brandon Jonkhans won’t be at the game, even though his family has season tickets and it’s his favorite game of the year. That’s because, under doctor’s orders, Brandon Jonkhans can’t be in a big, noisy crowd or in a place with a lot of lights. He also has a severe headache and dizziness and can’t do much of anything, including going to school for two weeks. “He truthfully is not doing very well,” said his mother, Meghan.
You see, Brandon suffered a serious concussion last weekend in Michigan when he was run from behind into the boards. In an Under-8 hockey tournament. Think about that for a minute. Better yet, take a look at the hit that led to his concussion:
Meghan Jonkhans said her son was showing no symptoms of a concussion after the game or the next day and felt he would be able to play. It was only after they arrived home from the tournament and the principal at his school sent him home saying, “he was going downhill fast,” that Brandon was taken to the hospital where the concussion was diagnosed. “Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind,” Meghan said. “I had never had a concussion myself, so I assumed he would have some immediate symptoms of that and he didn’t. Had I known what I know, he most definitely would have not been playing.”
It was originally speculated that the boy who hit Brandon was assessed a two-game suspension, but had it rescinded after the boy’s father appealed. That does not appear to be the case. Organizers have said the boy was originally given a minor for boarding and a game misconduct and was allowed to continue to play in the tournament. When the AAU saw a video of the hit and conducted a review Thursday, it suspended the player for five games, two practices and put him on one year of probation. “That’s pretty stiff for an eight-year-old,” said Gary Lullove, the AAU’s compliance and disciplinary chairman for Michigan. “I can’t find any intent on the kid’s part, even though he had his arms outstretched and he cracked him from behind. We take the protocols on concussions very seriously.”
All right, so now that the dust has settled on this, let’s take stock. Perhaps now is not the time to rage about the fact that this happened. What might be a better idea would be to use it as what is called “a teachable moment.” From here, there are three areas where we can learn something from all this, in order of importance:
1. Parents must realize that children immediately respond and react to concussions differently than adults and act accordingly;
2. There is zero reason for kids as young as seven and eight years old to be playing full-ice hockey in hyper-competitive tournaments when all the research suggests the best place for them is in cross-ice games that focus less on results and more on skill development; and,
3. At a time when kids’ games are more professionalized than ever, when you step out of the auspices of USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, you literally pay your money and take your chances.
• Let’s deal with the most important one first. It’s interesting to note that young Brandon didn’t show any signs of a concussion at first glance. In fact, it took almost 48 hours for symptoms to make themselves apparent. It’s also scary, given that the danger of second-impact concussions is much more serious with youths than it is in adults. One of Canada’s top concussion experts says it’s important to always, always err on the side of caution.
“With kids, concussions are harder to detect,” said Dr. Charles Tator. “It’s hard enough in adults, but in kids, it’s even harder, there is no doubt about that. They can’t express what they’re feeling as clearly as adults. That’s one of the worrisome things about concussion with kids. And the symptoms can be confusing. For example, kids often complain of a stomachache after a concussion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one adult who complained of a stomachache, but kids will after a concussion.”
• On to No. 2. There’s a very good chance this injury would not have happened if it had been a cross-ice game, for a couple of reasons. First, the player who hit Brandon likely would not have had that much speed behind him when the collision occurred. Second, if you subscribe to the theory that it was unintentional, that is something they teach in cross-ice hockey, which is one reason why it’s advocated for that age group by both Hockey Canada and USA Hockey. If there was intent, you could argue that the hyper-competitive atmosphere might have contributed to that. Either way, full-ice hockey at that age is a bad idea.
All of the credible evidence suggests that children that young need to be involved in cross-ice hockey, for the same reason why kids play T-ball instead of having pitchers, some kids’ basketball leagues play with lowered rims and experts suggest kids don’t play tackle football before the age of 12. For whatever reason, there’s a faction out there that doesn’t see cross-ice as ‘real hockey’, when in fact it gives kids the skills and perspective they need when they do hit the ice for actual competitive games. Research has also overwhelmingly shown that injuries are far more likely to occur in game settings than in practice-like scenarios.
• And lastly, people are making money here. Judging by Grinder Hockey’s website, they are doing that. Teams pay a minimum of $995 (U.S.) to enter their tournaments and once they get there, teams must stay only in tournament-approved hotels.
And there’s no law against that, but by entering events such as the Grinder Gobbler Tournament, parents and players get around the cross-ice edicts brought down by Hockey Canada and USA Hockey. Then they’re outraged when things like this happen. There are reasons, very good ones, why those governing bodies, and virtually every other one around the world, mandate cross-ice hockey for kids that young. It’s to take the focus off competition and put it on skill development. So if there’s one takeaway from this, don’t fall for the fallacy that your child will be left behind if he or she doesn’t play full-ice hockey at a young age.