Ronald Petrovicky can't remember a time when he played organized hockey and hitting wasn't part of the game.
From the atom level in Slovakia all the way to the NHL, Petrovicky continually learned how to use his body weight to separate an opponent from the puck, and more importantly, how to protect his own body from injury when being hit by an opponent.
So he's reluctant to endorse Hockey Canada's decision this year to ban bodychecking across the country at the peewee level. Petrovicky is the father of an 11-year-old boy, Rief, who will be playing on the peewee rep team hockey in the Prince George Minor Hockey Association, and while he agrees there will likely be fewer concussions in the absence of intentional body contact, the former Prince George Cougar is worried about the repercussions a couple years down the road when hitting becomes part of the game for bantam players.
"It's a good thing and it's a bad thing, said Petrovicky, whose 12-year pro career included NHL stops in Calgary, Atlanta, New York and Pittsburgh. "I guess they were getting out of control last year when kids were hitting and I'm sure some parents weren't prepared for that kind of hits. But the other side is that they will be another year or two older when they get to the next level. Then the hits are going to hurt that much more and they won't know how to protect themselves at that age."
Hitting was allowed this year in the summer hockey league and as one of the Prince George peewee team's coaches, Petrovicky made sure he taught each of his players what to do to prevent injuries from bodychecks. That could mean anything from not turning your back to an opponent and repositioning your body closer to the boards to brace for the hit or keeping your head up to avoid an open-ice encounter.
"Last year, the boys were involved in the hits and nothing happened," Petrovicky said. "You have to protect yourself and they won't start learning that until one or two years from now and that might be too late when guys are 20 or 30 pounds heavier."
He believes this has implications for the entire game, not just for the kids.
"They're trying to take the rough style out of hockey and the tough play, the hitting and the fighting, are slowly disappearing," he said. "NHL teams want their skilled players to have more room to make more finesse plays. Ten years from now, you might not have any hitting or any fighting."
Peewee players who do get caught bodychecking will have to serve a minor penalty.
Quebec already had the no-hitting rule in place and Alberta and Nova Scotia followed suit earlier this year, joined by the rest of the country when Hockey Canada made its ruling in May. Saskatchewan was the only province to vote against the change. Proponents of the rule change said it will allow the younger kids to spend more time developing their hockey skills and skating.
Prince George peewee Tier 2 Cougars head coach Don Gaboury says he's torn by the decision, wondering if it will simply delay rather than prevent injuries. He knows it will take time for the second-year peewee players, especially the aggressive types, to adapt to the new rule.
"Certain kids who play that style, where hitting was a big part of their game, you can see them hesitating a bit," said Gaboury. "If they''re going to have hitting in hockey I'd like to see it at a younger age so they can learn it when there's often not as much of a physical difference between the kids. But at the same time if you look at the doctors' reports and the amount of kids that are hurt and have concussions it's pretty hard to argue that you should have the rule in there because at the end of the day it's about the safety of the kids."
Gaboury said the experiment will have failed if, over the next couple years, the incidence of injury spikes in the bantam age group.
"Are we resolving an issue or just pushing it back to an older age, I have no idea," said Gaboury. "To some degree maybe it's gone overboard, but that's the way you have to start and work back from there. We don't want kids at 11 or 12 years old ending their careers because of concussion issues."