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Safety Tips: Hockey

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With nonstop action and high-speed team play, hockey is one of the most exciting sports. Sometimes called "the fastest game on ice," it's a great way to get exercise, and with youth and adult programs throughout the country, chances are no matter what your age or skill level, there is a league near you to play in.

As fun as it is, though, hockey carries a very real risk of injury. To find out how to stay as safe as possible, follow these tips.

Why Is Hockey Safety Important?

At its highest levels, from high school to college to the NHL, hockey allows "checking," an action that involves a player colliding with an opposing player to stop his forward momentum. This can lead to numerous injuries from players hitting one another or colliding with the ice surface or the boards that line the rink. Even in so-called "no-check" leagues, there will always be a lot of contact. Falls are very common, and ice is just as hard as concrete to land on.

In addition, with every player carrying a stick and wearing sharpened skates, accidents are bound to occur. There's also a good chance that sooner or later you'll get hit by the puck, which is made of hard rubber and can leave a nasty bruise if it catches you in the wrong spot. And, since hockey involves strenuous physical activity, pulled muscles and sprains are a hazard for players who don't warm up and stretch properly.

Gearing Up

Before you start playing hockey, it's very important to get all the right equipment and know how to put it on and use it correctly. Skates and a helmet are a good place to start, but there is a lot more you'll need to wear to keep yourself safe.

Never play a game of hockey without the following:

Goalie Gear

Charged with putting their bodies between flying pucks and the goal, hockey goalies need a whole different set of equipment to keep themselves safe. Helmets, skates, neck guards, and athletic protectors and cups are all different for goalies than they are for other positions.

In addition, goalies should always wear:

Before the Puck Is Dropped

Everything you do during a hockey game will be done while you are skating, so be sure you know how to skate well before you play a game. Most rinks offer learn-to-skate classes and open skating sessions when you can practice. Know how to stop, turn, and get up when you fall. It's also helpful to know how to skate, stop, and turn while skating backwards.

Once you feel like you are a good enough skater and you've got the proper equipment and know how to use it, you'll be ready to hit the ice. You may notice that before a game, hockey players generally skate around the rink a few times to warm up. Use this time to loosen up your joints and stretch your muscles. Some skaters warm up and stretch before getting on the ice.

Important muscle groups to stretch before a game include:

Keeping it Safe During a Game

There's a reason why tripping, hooking, slashing, high-sticking, and cross-checking bring penalties. Hockey sticks can easily go from being a piece of equipment to being a dangerous weapon. Know all the rules governing the use of your stick and follow them to the letter. You wouldn't want to get hit by someone else's stick, and no one wants to get hit by yours.

Other penalties designed to keep the game safe involve roughing, boarding, and checking from behind. These all have to do with players colliding with one another. If your league allows checking, know the difference between a legal check and an illegal one, and never hit anyone from behind. If you play in a "no-check" league, it means just that: no checking.

As far as fighting is concerned, you may see players in the NHL throw off their gloves and start punching one another, but if you do it, expect to pay a harsh penalty. Almost every youth league will kick players out of the game and suspend them for at least one more game for their first fighting penalty. You won't just be hurting yourself; you'll be letting your team down.

Also, never play a game of hockey without adult supervision. Even if you follow every safety tip, accidents can still happen. There should always be a stocked first-aid kit and a responsible adult on hand in the event of an injury or other emergency. Likewise, be sure to have your games officiated by certified referees who are familiar with the specific rules of your league.

Pond Hockey

Playing a game of hockey with your friends on a frozen pond can be lots of fun, but ponds present their own unique set of safety problems. Be sure to have an adult check the ice to make sure it's thick enough to support your weight before you play, and stay away from any parts of the pond or lake where it looks like the ice might be thin. If a puck goes in a suspect area, just let it go. You can always get another puck. It's not worth the risk of hypothermia or drowning to go after it.

Frozen ponds also go hand in hand with very cold temperatures. Be sure to wear plenty of warm clothing in addition to all your hockey gear anytime you play outdoors, and if you're planning on playing on a sunny day, be sure to use sunscreen on your face. The sun's rays reflecting off ice and snow can be very intense.

Now that you know the best ways to keep yourself safe, get out there and hit the ice. Hockey is a great game that you'll want to play for many years, so you'll want to avoid accidents and injuries as best you can by following these tips.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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