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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:

  • Helmet — When it comes to preventing serious injuries, this is your most important piece of equipment. Helmets should be certified by the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) and should include a full facemask with a protective chin cup and a chin strap. Make sure you get a helmet that fits properly, and always keep the chin strap fastened and tightened to ensure that the helmet stays in place.
  • Skates — As with helmets, be sure to get skates that fit well. You're going to lace them up tight, so the wrong size skates can really hurt your feet. Skates should offer plenty of ankle support and have a steel or hard plastic toe cup. It's also important to keep skates sharp so they perform better and are less likely to get caught in ruts in the ice.
  • Shoulder pads, elbow pads, knee and shin pads — These are all specific to hockey. Soccer or lacrosse equipment won't give you the protection you need. Lower leg (knee and shin) pads should have a hard plastic exterior and reach the top of your skates.
  • Hockey pants — Also called breezers, these should reach to your knee and offer padding in the front, rear and sides of your upper legs and midsection.
  • Gloves — Another sport-specific item, hockey gloves should allow for mobility while protecting well past your wrist.
  • Athletic supporter and cup — These are incorporated into most hockey undershorts these days but can also come from other sports.
  • Neck protector — Although some leagues don't require them, neck protectors are helpful at guarding against wayward hockey sticks and skate blades.
  • Mouthguard — These not only protect the teeth, but also the lips, cheeks, and tongue, and can help prevent jaw injuries.

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:

  • Leg pads — These should always be the correct length and be thick enough to protect against even the hardest slapshot.
  • Arm pads and chest protector — Arm pads should reach all the way to your wrist. Chest protectors should wrap slightly around your sides to keep your entire front well armored.
  • Blocker glove — This glove should allow your fingers to grip the stick easily but be very thick and cover most of your forearm.
  • Catcher glove — Similar to a first baseman's glove in baseball, catcher gloves should have thick padding over the wrist and palm and should also come well up the forearm.

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:

  • Hip and groin — Unlike walking or running, skating requires you to extend your legs to the side. Stretch out while skating by bending your knees and extending one leg out to the side. Stretch the front of the hip by dragging one foot behind you and getting as low to the ice as you can.
  • Back and torso — Shooting the puck, which you'll hope to be doing a lot of, subjects your midsection to a strenuous twisting motion that your body isn't used to doing. Trunk twists, while holding your stick in front of you, and toe touches also can be done while skating around the rink.
  • Hamstrings — Use the side boards of the rink for balance while you swing legs forward and back to help stretch hamstrings and hip flexors.

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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Related Resources:
American College of Sports Medicine
This site has tips on staying safe while playing sports and exercising.
American Sports Medicine Institute
The mission of ASMI is to improve the understanding, prevention and treatment of sports-related injuries through research and education.
National Athletic Trainers' Association
This site contains information on certified athletic trainers and tips on preventing and healing sports injuries.