The National Football League head office and the talking heads who run the National Hockey League are taking action as hits to the noggin and ensuing concussions become more commonplace.
The problem is nowhere near as severe at the minor levels of the two sports, with the games played at much slower speeds and the athletes younger and smaller. But there is concern among high school football coaches in the Central Alberta area, although there are differing opinions on what can — or should — be done to lessen the numbers and the severity of the injuries.
Actually, head injuries are not a major issue in Central Alberta high school football. Notre Dame Cougars head coach Gino Castellan has seen his team afflicted with knee and collarbone injuries, as well as separated shoulders, concussions and even a broken arm.
“We had a player break his humerus (in the upper arm) this season. I’ve never seen that before,” said Castellan.
But are the injuries occurring with greater frequency than in past seasons?
“We’ve just had a few more injuries this year.
“We’ve been hurting and a lot of other teams are banged up too,” he said.
A coincidence? Just one of those years?
“It could be that,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more parity in our league now, so you’re playing tougher games. All your games are tough, and when that’s the case, I guess there might be a greater chance of getting hurt.”
Central Alberta High School Football League teams play an eight-game schedule, which this year includes one condensed period of activity for each team.
“It can’t be healthy when you’re playing three games in eight days. You don’t have time to recover,” said Castellan. “Sometimes kids are hurt and they don’t say anything and then the injury gets worse. But they want to play.”
If indeed there is a problem, could the solution involve a shorter schedule?
“We don’t need to play eight (regular-season) games. Six would work,” said Castellan. “But again, I don’t know what the answer is.
“I was going to do a little survey and find out how many games are safe to play, how much rest do you need . . . maybe using the U.S. model as a comparison, just something to present to our league.”
Castellan admitted that this year’s schedule is favourable to the 2009 version, which consisted of two compressed periods. And he repeated his belief that injuries are virtually impossible to predict and prevent.
“It’s a contact sport and injuries are going to happen. You just hope that someone doesn’t get seriously, seriously hurt,” he said. “Really, a broken arm is a fluke, a lot of the injuries are flukes. Whether it’s bad timing or whatever, they just happen.
“Our league is getting better so teams and games are going to be tougher. You have to play hard now for four quarters. Where before there might have been three top teams, now everyone is getting good. But a lot of factors go into injuries and there’s no way of knowing when or how they’re going to happen.”
Certainly, Castellan doesn’t cut any corners. The team’s equipment meets all safety standards and he employs Collegiate Sports people as game-day trainers.
Recently, he ordered an ambulance when one of his players suffered an injury in the neck area, later diagnosed as a collarbone injury.
“We err on the cautious side. A $1,000 ambulance bill is well worth it,” he said.
League commissioner Chris Andrew isn’t surprised that the walking wounded are more numerous in October than the previous month.
“That’s pretty typical. This is about the time of year that injuries seem to mount and impact teams and the outcome of games,” he said. “We do run a compressed schedule and typically after that is when people seem to be in the worst shape.”
Andrew isn’t convinced that a shorter schedule would be the solution.
“Actually, we’ve increased the schedule by a week the year,” he said. “The opportunity was afforded to us because for the next two years the provincial playdowns will start a week later than in the past, and it gave us the opportunity to run one compression where normally we run two.
“That being said, certainly I’ve talked to a couple of coaches in our league who have said that given the situation they are in this year, they’re in favour of looking at our league (schedule) again. We’ve spent a little time looking at different scenarios that would have us run a seven-week campaign rather than an eight-week schedule, which would remove us from having any compression.”
Andrew agreed that most teams can’t provide paid staff as trainers.
“That would be difficult for every team, and certainly the size of the community would limit that,” he said.
The league boss agreed that football injuries are going to occur, but he’s inspired by the fact that rough-play ejections are down in numbers this year.
“I’m only dealing with two player suspensions, whereas last year I dealt with several more,” he said. “So I don’t think that kids are going to intentionally hurt someone.”
Andrew also echoed Castellan’s point that parity in the Central Alberta League is more prevalent than in previous years, thus making the games more intense and perhaps injury-prone.
“The level of the athletes that football is attracting now is just that much better and I don’t know if the bottom end is going down that much either,” said Andrew.
Sylvan Lake H.J. Cody Lakers head coach Jeremy Braitenback also sees more parity in the league, but is not in favour of a reduction in the schedule.
“When the league is more competitive, you never want to wipe any team off the schedule,” he said. “From year to year, everyone seems to have their little rises and falls. I think we have a great league for that reason.
“I like the tradition of playing everybody. You look forward to the different rivalries and seeing the same coaches every year. It’s a fraternity.”
Braitenback doesn’t believe that injuries are on the rise this season while allowing that his team “is pretty banged up” as the result of playing three games in eight days.
“It’s the nature of the schedule,” he said. “Every team goes through it and we discussed it at league meetings, and if we want to continue to play everybody, which is a good tradition, I guess we just have to suck it up and get through it. That’s part of the game.
“I don’t think there’s more or worse injuries this year than any other, but they take time to heal. That’s just the nature of the game.”
The Lakers have two females working as trainers, one who is enrolled in the sports medicine program at H.J. Cody and another who has graduated from the course and is studying at Red Deer College.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have the same setup over the last eight years. We’ve had pretty good personnel (as trainers),” said Braitenback. “You do the best that you can and it helps to have access to a college. We’re close enough that we can send a lot of athletes there (RDC) for rehab.”
Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre emergency ward Dr. Randy Junck has treated numerous football injuries over the years.
“Mostly contusions, separations, lots of hand and finger injuries, along with ligament injuries, sprained knees and ankles,” he said. “I don’t recall anything overly serious.”
Emergency Dr. Greg Meikle, who played at the university level with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, has seen roughly a half dozen football injuries this fall, ranging from minor to moderate.
“But I can’t say I’ve noticed a difference in frequency or severity over past years and I don’t know that we have any kind of tracking system that would provide us with that information,” he said.
As a former player, he knows full well that injuries go hand in hand with the grind of the sport.
“Football is controlled violence. When you have a lot of moving bodies injuries are inevitable,” he said.
Are injuries on the rise in the minor hockey world?
Todd Jackson, the senior manager of safety and insurance for Hockey Canada, can’t answer that question accurately, but does stress that there are now fewer spinal injuries in the sport.
“Our data is very much based on our insurance claims and saying that, obviously not every minor hockey injury gets reported,” he said. “That’s something that we want to look at in the future — a method of gaining data so that we can really figure out the trends.
“I think what’s happening is the awareness of injuries in the game is increasing. I think that everyone from parents to coaches to everyone involved is realizing that we really do have to work at keeping the game safe. With that awareness going up, I think what we’re going to see is certainly the respect factor continuing to come into the game and injuries starting to go down.”
Jackson added that Hockey Canada rules regarding checking from behind and head checking incidents have played a role in reducing injuries, although, again, he couldn’t confirm that with statistics.
Dr. Meikle said he’s treated “a couple” of minor hockey injuries this fall.
“Neither was significant and I can’t say that I’ve noticed more injuries this year,” he said.