University of Sask. study finds no physiological impacts for minor hockey players wearing facemasks

A study examining the impact of face-coverings for minor hockey players shows masks may not make the game of hockey more difficult, nor do they make the player work harder.

“We did physiological tests in the lab and we found no differences with the face masks. The only minor difference we found was there was a greater muscle-oxygen extraction while wearing the facemasks, so it looked like the muscles were working a little bit harder while wearing a face mask, but not enough to affect their exercise performance,” said Phil Chilibeck, professor in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan.

Chilibeck, along with other researchers from the University of Saskatchewan recently published their work in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stating that wearing a surgical facemask has minimal effect on performance measures during high-intensity exercise in youth hockey players.

Working with boys and girls between the ages of nine and 14, researchers put them through high-intensity workouts on a stationary bike with a surgical facemask, measuring physiological changes and then moving the players on the ice, skating in full equipment.

“We didn’t see any increase in heart rate, which would indicate the player is under more stress while wearing a facemask,” Chilibeck said. “Bottom line, you don’t see any changes in exercise performance.”

One physiological impact the research team discovered was players with a facemask on will breathe in more carbon dioxide, but not to a level where performance is impacted.

“The changes are so small that you don’t see an impact on performance,” Chilibeck said.

Last month, the Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association (SMHA) asked Saskatoon City Council to grant an exemption allowing SMHA hockey players to go maskless during games and practices.

The request came after Saskatoon officials required masks for all participants in city-run facilities including city-owned arenas, as a method to curb the spread of COVID-19. The city mandate eventually was superseded by the current provincial public health order which permits athletes to remove masks while competing.

In his request to city council, Kelly Boes, executive director of SMHA cited the potential for injury if minor hockey players are forced to wear masks while playing.

“I see potential concerns including blindspots created by a mask especially when looking down at your feet or in the crease area,” Boes told the committee in September. “An extra second looking for a puck while trying to make a play will make players much more vulnerable and not aware of another player coming.”

According to Chilibeck, his study did not look at the impact masks have on peripheral vision.

"There’s no research data that shows that wearing a facemask leads to greater incidence of concussions, that research hasn’t been done,” he said.

Kelly McClintock, general manager of Hockey Saskatchewan, said that when the province mandated masks for all indoor sports last year, he heard a lot of complaints.

“The mask is freezing up, it’s getting really wet, it's difficult for kids to keep it on their face especially when they have a facemask on. There were a lot of issues around that,” McClintock said.

Currently no minor hockey players are required to wear face coverings while playing hockey, which he hopes won’t change anytime soon.

“Players aren’t able to adjust their mask because they’re wearing a facemask. It’s either falling down, it’s uncomfortable and it’s taking away their attention,” he said.

“We were happy to see the kids engaged in the activity don’t have to wear it.”