It was a routine hockey play along the boards, but it left Phoenix Tashlin-Clifford feeling “intimidated.” He was battling for the puck when suddenly an opposing player hit him from behind. His head crashed into the boards. He ended up with a concussion.
“(I felt) dizzy … throbbing pains,” he said. He added that the injury affected his play. “I didn’t want to get another concussion.”
By the age of 14, Phoenix had suffered three such concussions. And he left the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) to play in a league that prohibited body checking. The Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League (TNCHL) was started in 2009 by Clifford’s father, Neil Clifford, and four other parents. The five adults shared a common concern about the growing number of head injuries among young players.
One of the league’s co-founders, Bill Robertson, also has a son who played with the GTHL and said the boy was a “target” for opposing players to hit.
“I couldn’t handle watching it anymore,” he said. “I just knew. They wanted to get rid of him.”
The physical elements of the game have recently become an issue in the NHL. The league has been criticized for body-checks to the head and hits from behind. NHL superstar, Sidney Crosby, has been sidelined by a concussion.
Although many young players look up to their favourite NHL stars, Robertson encourages them to play the game differently.
“We focus on respect,” he said. “It’s something that’s lacking on the professional level … The end result from a lack of respect is Sidney Crosby, who’s out for at least a month and whose career is probably changed from a lack of respect.”
Dr. Scott Howitt, a rehabilitation and sports science specialist at Sports Performance Centres, said the after-effects of a concussion have a greater impact on a younger person.
“Long term effects may take several years to show up and may include cognitive defects, dementia and perhaps permanent disability,” he said. “Players with undeveloped brains are more susceptible to brain injury than more mature players and need much longer to fully recover … Some may not achieve brain function potential.”
With the absence of body-checking from the game, co-founder of the TNCHL, Jacqueline Friedland, said the league focuses on other skills such as, passing, skating and teamwork.
Since its formation, the TNCHL has no reported concussions or head injuries.
Eventually, players such as Phoenix Tashlin-Clifford, who has aspirations of moving on to higher level leagues, will be introduced to body-checking, but Robertson said young players need to be taught how to play the game with respect first.
“If we don’t change it at this level, it’s never going to change,” he said.
The league currently has eight teams and 41 players. They play twice a week at the Larry Grossman Forest Hill Arena.