Dr. Joan Vickers, a researcher at the University of Calgary, announces the results of a study examining the effectiveness of a warning line painted on the ice to reduce injuries to hockey players, in Calgary, Tuesday. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Warning line intended to prevent injury a distraction for hockey players: study

CALGARY — Researchers say a warning line intended to get hockey players to keep their heads up around the boards has the opposite effect.

The orange metre-wide line painted on the ice along the base of the boards — known as a look-up line — was designed by Thomas Smith, a former National Collegiate Athletic Association and former junior hockey player in the United States.

He wanted to remind players to look up before body-checking someone into the boards.

Smith was partially paralyzed when that happened to him. He believes the orange line prompts players to keep their heads up and avoid serious crashes into the boards.

But researchers at the University of Calgary say players in their study actually looked down at the line, which made them more vulnerable to injuries.

“It’s a noble concept and a noble idea and I thought it would be great to find evidence that would support this,” said lead researcher Joan Vickers.

“I’m afraid not.”

The study points to medical evidence that shows if hockey players have their heads down when they are pushed into the boards, they are at greater risk for head, neck and spinal injuries.

“The visual system is powerful, especially in elite athletes, and if you put something unusual or different within the playing environment, that’s going to grab their attention. It’s also going to cause a difference in their behaviours,” said Vickers.

“There isn’t another sport in the world that hits people against boards the way they do in ice hockey and it takes a toll.”

Researchers in the faculty of kinesiology spent a year testing the warning line at the Olympic Oval ice rink with the help of coaches and players from the men’s university hockey team.

Vickers admits she was surprised by the results, given that other sports such as football and baseball successfully use warning tracks to remind players to avoid certain areas.

“This is on the ice. This is in the playing area itself. So let’s imagine you took a metre away from a football field.

“The concept is really great — to warn people — and I often think maybe a narrower line or a line that’s not as big might do the same thing.”

Smith said the study proves the look-up line doesn’t work without proper player education. The study involved players that were not fully informed about the look-up lines and who only tested it for a short time, he said.

Getting used to change doesn’t happen overnight, he added.

“If it’s not being taught, the look-up line is not going to work,” Smith said.

“It can’t just be players going out, not informed, and them skating on it for a short amount of time. This is years that we’re talking.”

The $50,000 study was funded by USA Hockey, which came to the University of Calgary.

“The Thomas E. Smith Foundation approached USA Hockey’s medical commission and asked them to approve it, and of course they’re not going to approve something like that without evidence, and that’s where we came into the picture,” Vickers said.

More research is needed to look at the actual injury rates during competition and to determine if a different kind of warning could be developed to protect hockey athletes, she suggested.

Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, agreed.

“The presence of a look-up line on the ice surface creates an opportunity for player education on the risk of contact near the boards, as well as injury prevention strategies,” Stuart said in a news release. “However, more research is needed to determine if the look-up line improves safety.”

The study was published in the European Journal of Sport Science.

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