Most people do not relate playing ice hockey with spinal cord injuries in the neck — they don’t happen often. But when a severe injury like a spinal cord injury does occur, the question is: What preventive measures could have been taken?


  • When going into the boards or goal posts, keep your HEADS UP
  • Do not tuck your chin.
  • If possible, use your hands, arms, shoulders, or facemask to cushion the impact.
  • Do NOT check others from behind.


  • Teach proper ways to give a body check and to take a check.
  • Do NOT allow players to check from behind.
  • Encourage fair play — the purpose of body checking is to separate the player from the puck, NOT to separate the player from consciousness!
  • Emphasize neck-strengthening and flexibility exercises.


  • Make sure your child (and your child’s coach) is aware of these techniques to decrease the risk for neck injuries.
  • Encourage your child to use the HEADS UP technique.

Can Prevention be Expected?

Prevention is usually possible and should be the first thought in a player’s mind when entering the rink. Think of the countless hours spent skating, weight training, stretching, competing, and studying the sport, so the player can be pre-
pared when the referee blows the first whistle at the start of the game. Knowing how to protect yourself against spinal cord injury is no different from knowing which goal to score against.

What Kind of Spinal Cord Injury Is Caused?

neckCervical (neck) spinal cord injuries, though infrequent, can be devastating. These most often occur when a player lowers his head or tucks his chin to his chest, causing the vertebrae (bone segments of the spinal column that surround the spinal cord) toalign in a straight line, and then collides head first into either another player, boards, or goal posts. This force (called axial compression) is transmitted to the aligned vertebrae and, with minimal force, can result in the fracture or breaking of one of the cervical vertebrae. When the vertebra fractures, it can cause compression on the spinal cord. It is this compression that results in paralysis.

This type of injury rarely occurs when the neck is in a normal or neutral position — HEADS UP!

Is There Any Type of Protective Equipment?

At present, there is no protective equipment that players can use to prevent a cervical spine injury. Helmets can protect players from concussions, but they do not protect against cervical spinal cord injury. The best form of protection is to be aware of the danger involved and keep your HEADS UP!

Basic Principles of Heads Up Hockey

  • Rule One: Head up – Don’t duck!
  • Hit the boards or goal posts with an arm, a leg or anything but your head first
  • Skate into the boards on an angle to dig out the puck.
  • Taking a check: Keep your head out of it.  Skates parallel to the boards, knees bent, low center of gravity.  Skate through the check and get away quickly.
  • No checking from behind.  It’s illegal, dangerous, and bad hockey.
  • Wear a snug fitting, HECC-certified helmet in good shape, plus a full facial protection.
  • Use a mouth guard every time you’re on the ice.

Prevention Techniques and Hockey Training Drills

“Angling In” Drill

1. Set up two lines of four players (A and B) behind the face-off spots, and pile of pucks (P) in the left corner.
2. On the whistle, the first player on the left face-off spot (A) angles into the corner, picks up a puck, skates behind the net and makes a pass to (B), who has moved from the face-off spot to the slot area.
3. Player (B) takes a shot on goal and joins the (A) line. Player (A) goes to the (B) line.

– Halfway through the drill, move the pucks to the right corner so players learn to pick up a puck and pass off both the forehand and backhand.
– A coach can stand to the side of the (A) line and slide a puck into the corner one at a time.
– For age levels with body checking, add a line of checkers who try to catch the puck carrier and angle him or her into the boards.

“Hitting the Boards” Drill

1. Set up two lines of players (A and B as illustrated) at the face-off spots.
2. On the whistle, a player from each line skates at an angle toward the corner boards. The players should make contact with the boards and glass with their arms, forearms, side of body and legs . . . but with no head contact at all.
3. Players should alternate between lines (A) and (B).
The speed at which the players hit the boards must be managed, depending on the skill level of the players. Proper head, arm and body position must be stressed.

– From the goal line, players skate full speed toward the blue line. At the top of the face-off circles, they should leave their feet and slide on their side, back or stomach. Have them imagine the blue line as an impact with the boards.
– Players should pretend to slide into the end boards, using arms, knees, legs and skates to absorb the impact. Proper heads-up position must be stressed.

“Taking a Check” Drill

1. Set up a line of puck carriers (A) in the corners behind the goal line and one line of checkers (B) at the face-off spots.
2. The puck carrier (A) moves up the boards and skates through the check of the (B) player.
3. For the puck carriers, stress heads-up position, keeping the legs moving and the stick down.
4. For the checkers, stress contact with the shoulders rather than the head, elbows, knees, stick or feet.
5. In this drill, players should alternate from puck carrier lines (A) to checking lines (B).

For best use of your ice time, set up the same drill in the other corner, too.