HALIFAX - Hockey Nova Scotia overwhelmingly voted to ban bodychecking for some minor hockey players on Sunday following pleas from physicians that the body contact increases the risk of head injuries to children.
The board unanimously voted to eliminate bodychecking for all peewee players, who are typically between 11- and 12-years old.
It was also removed for the B and C levels of the bantam and midget leagues (ages 13 through 18), with only one dissenting vote of the 21-member board.
The decision capped off the association's annual general meeting in the Halifax area, where the issue was debated after presentations from industry experts, physicians and a young player.
Hockey Nova Scotia president Randy Pulsifer said following those presentations, the mood among board members shifted toward eliminating bodychecking.
He said members were particularly touched after hearing from a young boy who can no longer play hockey after suffering a concussion.
"Here we have a young kid that's 13 or 14 years old and his hockey career is over," said Pulsifer at a hotel in the suburb of Dartmouth. "You have to look in your heart and say, 'What's best?'"
Debate over when to allow players to start hitting has inflamed emotions on both sides of the argument for years. It gathered steam after research came out of Alberta last year showing there was a three-fold increase in the risk of injuries for peewee players who check in Alberta, compared to those in Quebec where bodychecking is not allowed until bantam.
"Those are pretty staggering numbers," Hockey Nova Scotia executive director Darren Cossar said. "Removing checking will clearly eliminate the number of injuries at that level and for 11- and 12-year-old players, and we think that's the absolute appropriate thing to do."
Debby Hill-LeBlanc, president of Clare Minor Hockey, said the move puts "the priority back in the sport."
"Safe hockey — that's the priority for our players."
As he headed into the meeting on Sunday, Pulsifer said there was no shortage of negative feedback.
"There are a lot of hockey purists out there that believe hockey should always have the checking component," he said. "Let's move hockey to the 21st century. This is the direction we had to take."
The changes take effect in the 2013-14 hockey season, which begins in September.
Pulsifer said Hockey Nova Scotia will now reach out to associations across the province to re-train coaches on body contact and bodychecking techniques to prepare peewee players for higher levels of hockey.
The move by Nova Scotia comes after a recent decision by Hockey Alberta to ban bodychecking for its peewee players.
Paul Carson, vice-president of development for Hockey Canada, said the issue will be front and centre when the organization meets in a few weeks in Charlottetown for its yearly meeting.
Pulsifer says he thinks Hockey Canada should follow suit.
"By us voting it in, by Alberta voting it in and Quebec already there, it just gives credence to the direction that we have to take as a nation."