Tough Stuff: A data-driven insight into NHL injuries
Which injuries are most common in the NHL? How do injuries in the NHL compare to other sports? Our study reveals all.
Injuries are a common occurrence in the NHL, and injuries sustained as a result of fighting have been a hot topic in recent years following the introduction of the Instigator Rule. But what about all the other injuries?
NHL lines site Betway have completed a study into NHL injuries, comparing the findings against data from the NBA, NFL, MLB and the English Premier League to establish which sports incur the most injuries and assess the impact of those injuries.
- 2020 saw the highest injury numbers for the NHL (1,179)
- Overall, NHL injuries have decreased by 14 per cent since 2017
- Injuries in the NBA have decreased by 53 per cent since 2017
- The NFL is the only sport to have increased injury numbers year-on-year since 2017, increasing by 73 per cent
- Only the NHL and NBA have seen injury numbers decrease since 2017
- The injury list time in days for the NHL has increased by 148 per cent since 2017
- The most injured body part across all sports is the knee
- The lower body is more prone to injuries than the upper body when combining data across all sports
Which sport is the most injury prone?
Every sport encounters injuries, whether a sprained ankle, a small cut or a serious injury requiring medical intervention. Let’s find out which sport reported the most injuries over five years from 2017-2021.
The NHL has significantly lower injury numbers than the rest of the compared sports, with around 5,300 over the five-year period. As a full-contact sport with the longest season of any major North American sport, we expected much higher numbers. Player fatigue and increased intensity throughout the season are likely contributors to the injuries obtained.
NFL football is the most injury-prone sport according to our research, with over 7,600 injuries between 2017 and 2021. Whether it’s down to contact on every play or the fact that football has always been a brutal game, it’s a high number of injuries. Football was also the only sport in our study where injury rates increased year-on-year.
The second most injury-prone sport is MLB, with more than 7,400 injuries over the five years. For a non-contact sport to lag just behind football in the injury numbers is surprising. Longer seasons, more movement from a standing start and extreme pressure on the arms are just a few reasons why injury rates could be high.
Third place for the most injury-prone sport goes to the NBA, with just under 7,000 injuries during the time studied. Basketball requires an intense training regimen, especially in the NBA, meaning training starts younger. Some theories suggest this lack of sustained recovery at a young age could be a factor in the number of injuries sustained.
English Premier League
Soccer reported the least amount of injuries with just over 2,600 between 2017 and 2021. Interestingly, the English Premier League saw a spike in injuries in 2018 where numbers almost doubled compared to those in 2017, before steadily decreasing year-on-year.
Where do sports injuries occur?
It’s one thing to look at the numbers of injuries reported in our favourite sports, but it's particularly interesting to look at where on the body these injuries are occurring.
Our research found that there was an even distribution of injuries between the upper and lower body in the NHL, with concussions also featuring.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common injuries in the NFL over the last five years have concerned the knee, closely followed by ankle and hamstring injuries.
As a sport that places intense pressure on the upper body, it came as no surprise that the shoulders and elbows were the most common places for injuries in MLB.
With all the twisting and turning that makes basketball such an exciting sport, it’s not surprising that most injuries occur in the knees and ankles of NBA players.
English Premier League
The English Premier League saw fewer injuries than every other sport, with most injuries occurring in the body’s lower half - namely the knees, ankles, hamstrings and groin.
Ice hockey injuries in depth
With a 14 per cent decrease in injuries reported in the NHL from 2017 to 2021, things are getting better for ice hockey players. But there are still a large number of injuries occurring in the sport every year, with the most common body parts impacted by injury being the knees, shoulders, hands and ankles.
Interestingly, our study found that total year-on-year ice hockey injuries decreased in 2018 and 2019, before seeing a spike in 2020 and then coming back down significantly in 2021. We’re unsure exactly why there was such a big increase during 2020 but illness and other health protocols preventing play may have resulted in greater injury list time for more players.
While player fitness and health is the most important consideration, we can’t ignore the economic impact* that injuries have on NHL teams.
- In 2017, the Canadiens paid costs of $9,421,531.96 for 908 injury days
- In 2018, the Coyotes paid costs of $11,748,868.72 for 968 injury days
- In 2019, the Red Wings paid costs of $26,212,030.97 for 1,620 injury days
- In 2020, the Stars paid costs of $37,641,863.36 for 1,839 injury days
- In 2021, the Canadiens paid costs of $33,602,889.05 for 2,755 injury days
- The total sum of injury costs from all NHL teams in five years was $1,234,586,375.77
- Bruins reported the most injuries every year
- The highest injury costs were not teams with the most injuries, but those with a greater number of injury list days
- The total number of injury days for the highest paying teams increased year-on-year by 203 per cent
- The NHL injury list time in days has increased by 148 per cent since 2017 - the highest in all sports
Preventing ice hockey injuries
‘Prevention is better than the cure’, and there are several benefits for top athletes preventing injury, including more game time and less injury cost. Athletes need to be physically fit and perform at a higher level of intensity for longer periods to prevent injury. Appropriate body conditioning reduces fatigue and maintains consistent physical and mental control, from the drop of the puck to the final buzzer.
Thorough warm-ups, cool-downs and stretching should be completed at every instance of exercise and not just before or after big games. Stretching is particularly important for avoiding common injuries like hamstring or groin pulls.
To further prevent injury when it comes to game time, protective equipment is essential. A concussion is a common NHL injury, which is why well-fitting helmets are key in this sport. Likewise, shoulder pads are imperative for avoiding common injuries like joint separation in the shoulder.
Treating ice hockey injuries
While prevention is essential for managing injuries in the NHL, some injuries just can’t be helped. That’s where appropriate treatment is key to getting players back on the ice and up to peak performance.
Some of the best treatment methods for common hockey injuries include:
- RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate)
- EPAT/Shockwave Therapy
After a concussion diagnosis, players should rest for 24-48 hours, avoiding anything that could worsen symptoms. Concussion prevention and treatment have improved significantly in the NHL, in part thanks to the research completed by sports physician and sports medicine specialist, Mark Aubry.
Since becoming CMO of Hockey Canada in 2004, Aubry has supported the Hockey Canada Safe Program. Trainers are now required to complete a ‘handling concussions’ course and players need a medical certificate with a doctor’s permission to play following a concussion. He has also pushed for zero tolerance rules for hits to the head and further education for ice officials.
With fighting and injury numbers both decreasing, it’s clear that the NHL is becoming a safer league for all hockey players. But unless injury list time also falls, high injury costs are going to be a big feature in the NHL for some time.
*The Betway Tough Stuff study assessed the economic impact that injuries have on NHL teams through dividing the total salary cap hit for active players by the number of active players within each team for each season, then dividing the total figure by the number of days within the season.