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Safety Dance

By Jamie MacDonald , 03/10/22, 3:00PM EST


Player safety coordinator Nicole Siglin checks in to share Mass. Hockey’s player safety focuses

On July 30, 2020, Massachusetts Hockey announced the naming of Nicole Siglin ATC, CSCS, as player safety coordinator. As one might imagine, Siglin, an athletic trainer by trade who resides in Hopkinton and works at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, has spent much of her tenure with Covid-19 as the most pressing safety issue across the rinks of Massachusetts.


With this 2021-22 season nearing a close and with restrictions easing across the state, Siglin, who in setting up her spring sports calendar at L-S noted she'd be keeping an eye on more than 550 spring sport athletes, will also have more in store for Mass Hockey in 2022-23.


Siglin will have her eye on concussions, neck guards, “Stop the Bleed,” body contact and making sure rinks have an emergency action plan for injuries. But keeping hockey players safe from what happens on the rink isn’t all that Siglin and Mass Hockey’s Safety Committee are thinking about, either. There are also times in dressing rooms before and after games, and, for officials during games, places that come with their own causes for concern from a place of emotional safety.


And there are parents in the stands who can help make their own microenvironment from the stands safer and healthier places to be. 


“It’s a game,” says Siglin. “Enjoy the experience.  The most important thing to remember sis that hockey, and sports in general, teach kids all the intangible things you don’t learn in a classroom – like adversity, teamwork, how to win, how to lose and sportsmanship.”


This offseason, her focuses are many, but concussions will take up a good deal of her time.


“That’s one of my huge initiatives this year,” Siglin says of concussions. “Because I’ve noticed, unfortunately, with a lot of coaches, they don’t feel empowered or they are afraid to pull a kid out.”


Siglin notes that coaches, as volunteers without medical backgrounds, may not think they’re qualified to make what feels in the moment like a difficult call.


“It’s not that they don’t care,” she says. “But some people might be afraid to [pull a player out of a game], even for something like parent backlash. You pull somebody’s kid out and, all of a sudden, they are yelling at you. Or coaches may feel like they’re overreacting. I’m trying to empower our coaches into making the decisions that, yes, you pull the kid, and the wheels are in motion, and you make sure there is follow up.”


That follow-up is to go see their doctor. 


“There is a concussion protocol in place for USA Hockey that,” says Siglin. “If you pull a child for suspected concussion, they have to have follow up with a doctor who is either going to say, ‘Yes, they have a concussion’ or they are cleared to play.”


Parents can the fill out a form to pass along to their affiliate, according to Siglin, and that form can be kept on file.


“This year, I introduced a concussion reporting form on a Google doc,” she says. “We want to use the data because that will help us see trends – maybe with age groups. And USA Hockey is actually trying to make it national for the upcoming season.”


A national database, obviously, has far-reaching benefits, but more robust data at the state level could make for safer rinks. Getting the word out for concussion protocols will become a cornerstone of the 2022-23 agenda.


“With the Safety Committee that I’m on, I work with Tom Smith closely, and we’re almost attacking it like a media campaign,” says Siglin. “We’re producing a lot of media materials right now so that we can use those for the fall kick-off. We’ll have banners at all the Mass Hockey tournaments – promoting concussion awareness, and promoting Heads up Hockey.”


Keep an eye out for QR codes to scan around the rinks, too.


“We’ll have QR code stickers we plan to distribute to all of the rinks,” Siglin says. “For when parents are standing around the glass, they can learn about concussion, and Heads up Hockey, and the Look up Line if we’re at a rink that has one.”

Not only are head injuries square on a safety committee’s radar, but they have also taken greater importance in the way youth sports are governed and played.


“We’re going to have a meeting with all of the rink owners and basically emphasize how important it is,” says Siglin. “We have to have a complete buy-in from the rinks and educate people. This affects your brain, and that should have people concerned and give people pause. We’re dealing with the most vulnerable population, as well. This age group is highly, highly vulnerable to concussions because their brains are growing.”


Still, Siglin has met with some resistance.


“People want to dismiss it, like, ‘These kids don’t produce enough force to get a concussion, and how could they possibly get concussions at 8- or 9-years-old? We have to change that mindset of people. There’s still a small population of people who think we’re over reacting or that we’re being soft or they were trying to make people soft. And we’re not. It’s your brain and you only get one of them. It’s about safety. We have to make sure that they become functioning adults when they are older. We are obligated to do those things.”


Siglin also sees some opportunity around body contact initiatives as it relates to concussions. 


USA Hockey’s ADM regional manager Roger Grillo, who hosts many clinics throughout Massachusetts and New England, is a leader in the field of competitive body contact and checking.


“It would be good if we had a safety summit,” says Siglin. “I would go along when he’s teaching all these coaches, and then we spend a little bit of time talking about concussions. And, ‘How comfortable are you pulling a player?’ Just kind of give coaches some scenarios and point out some important information on how they can feel empowered to do that. We’re not asking them to be medical professionals. We’re just asking them to be reasonable when a child is exhibiting concussion.”


neck guards

On the Safety Protection Equipment Committee, Siglin and her colleagues, like so many hockey fans, were moved to discuss “neck laceration guards” at great length after a tragic accident during a game in Connecticut this past January.


At this point, USA Hockey recommends neck guards but does not mandate them.


“One problem is that, right now, the technology doesn’t exist for them to be really effective,” Siglin says, sighting limited data because, thankfully, the incidents don’t happen often. “So, everything that they have done [to test guards], they have done in the lab. They have varying degrees of efficacy, but they are not uniform or standard. If you’re going to mandate a piece of equipment, you’re going to have to make sure that it’s going to protect everybody.”


For the most part, neck guards fit into one of three categories: around the neck, part of something along the lines of a compression shirt, and almost an extended collar. 


“We’ve found that the Velcro ones were the least effective ones,” says Siglin. “The ones that are Velcro, the kids don’t make them tight enough and they’re just moving around. And they hate them. The integrated ones were a little bit better.”


For Siglin, whose bantam son has worn an integrated neck guard for years, something has been better than nothing, though perfect solutions are a long way off. 


“Unless you’re covering right up to the ears, there’s going to be something exposed,” she says. “You might get a skate hit the guard, and now it’s going to go upwards and hit where you’re not protected. So that’s not really protection, either. Obviously, you want to protect the kids, but we want to make sure we’re mandating a piece of equipment that’s actually going to do its job.”


Siglin also brought up an issue raised by USA Hockey’s chief medical and safety officer, Dr. Michael Stuart, parent of a daughter who played at Boston college and three sons who played in the NHLs, including former Bruins defenseman Mark, who pointed out that a neck guard may restrict range of motion of the neck, too, which may impact Heads up Hockey.


Dr. Stuart, though, whose eldest son, Mike, suffered a significant throat slash in college that could also have ended tragically, is a proponent of neck guards.


Stuart told the New York Times in January: “Every single hockey player in the United States should be wearing one because U.S.A. Hockey recommends it.”

bullying and hazing

As parents know, in some ways, it’s both easier and harder to spot bullying behaviors these days. While we may be catching up in awareness with how damaging those behaviors can be for children, technology has outpaced many parents’ abilities to notice that it’s even happening. 


Similarly, dressing rooms that aren’t supervised to some extent can also result in unsafe emotional spaces.


“It’s about physical safety, but it’s also about bullying and hazing,” Siglin says of the role of player safety in hockey. “What’s going on in the locker room when the coaches are supposed to be supervising? And, unfortunately, this past year or so it has been worse – we have just had really bad behavior and it’s concerning. So we have to address it on all fronts. It’s not just from a discipline standpoint. But it has to be, ‘Are we making it safe for these kids? It’s also about referee safety. That’s a huge part of all of this, too. It’s not just about safety within the sport. It encompasses everyone.”


Siglin notes that, so often, the aim is to make sure players are having fun, and seeing to it that coaches are trying to make it fun for kids.


“But we have to make it fun and safe,” she says. “And the safety starts in the locker room. It’s not just having an adult but you have to have a Safe Sport adult in the locker room.”


Safety on the ice, too, can be a function of just how dangerously a player may be making hockey because of the way he or she is playing.


“A lot of the aggression on the ice has become a safety issue,” says Siglin. “There has been a tremendous out amount of match penalties, up this year from last year.”


And, yes, official who might otherwise be there to help, are often caught not only in the middle, but also under fire from parents in the stands, too.


“There is a referee shortage for a reason,” Siglin says. “People don’t want to be abused by parents. So that makes it hard. And then it just trickles down.”

playing other sports

As an athletic trainer, Siglin is exposed to all kinds of athletes, thousands over the years, which brings with it some familiarity across sports and their injuries. Playing other sports part of Siglin’s recipe for a healthy young athlete – and person.


“It’s too early to specialize kids,” she says. “I would say, 14 and under, you cannot be specializing kids. It’s insane. You’re setting them up, not just with ice hockey but any [one] sport, for over-use injury and burnout. Kids need to miss their sport. They do. And I think parents suffer from fear of missing out, and that affects their kids more than anything else. But we’re talking about kids who haven’t even hit puberty yet. I tell a lot of my youth parents that puberty is a lovely equalizer.”

more in store

Siglin also noted she will focus on promoting “Stop the Bleed,” as well as trying to arm rinks with information about emergency action plans. It is no small agenda.


Overall, Siglin, the hockey fan, mother of three, athletic trainer to hundreds each season and safety coordinator for tens of thousands of Massachusetts youth hockey players, is aiming to create a better place to play for all of them. And, of course, she bristles at the idea that athletic trainers and safety officials take the fun out of everything.


“My job as an athletic trainer is to keep people playing, not to keep people from playing,” says Siglin, whose conversations with her L-S student athletes may be just as relevant for any population. “I teach my high school kids that my degree trumps your Google search. I’ve had years of experience doing this. People are shortsighted and that’s a problem. Medical professionals are very objective. As much as I love our teams, I never care who wins or loses. I just want to make sure that everybody gets out of the game healthy.”