Ice hockey was -- and still is -- part of life in the Guinan household. Patrick's father, Rick Guinan, had grown up around the game in western Massachusetts, a hardscrabble defenseman who led his high school team in penalty minutes. By age 9, Patrick was playing up in the 11- and 12-year-old Pee Wee division, the first level of youth hockey that allows body checking.
It was around then Patrick suffered his first concussion. It happened on an open-ice check, a jarring jolt that left Patrick sprawled near the center of the rink. Another concussion followed. Then another. Then another ...
In all, Patrick suffered six hockey-related concussions in a five-year span. By age 14, his ice hockey career was over. Now a sophomore at Central York High School, Patrick cannot participate in contact sports. The risk of further brain trauma -- and the possibility of long-term damage -- is too great. The headaches affirm that.
"That reminds me that I can't go back," Patrick, now 16, said.
Patrick's story is more the exception than the norm in youth ice hockey, a sport with a condensed but intensely fervent following. Still, his is a cautionary tale, especially for a game trying to reconcile with a sports culture hypersensitive to the threat of head injuries.
The game's power structure has taken notice. In June, USA Hockey, the sport's governing body in the United States, will vote on a rule change that would push back the level at which body-checking is allowed -- from the 12-and-under Pee Wee level, where checking currently starts, to the 14-and-under Bantam level.
USA Hockey says the alteration will reduce injury and encourage players to build skill sets. But in a sport that counts toughness among its core virtues, the change has been met by a muddled response. Some believe it will dull down the game. Others wonder if it's the best way to protect players.
"It's kind of like taking tackling out of football," said Paul Hostetter, who coaches the middle school team at Dallastown. "I don't know how that would set with people."
Mike Cleveland calls it "The Big One." It's the devastating hit, the rink-rattling checks that find their way onto television highlights and YouTube videos.
Cleveland knows them well. He is the director of hockey with the York Devils, a local youth organization with between 400 and 450 participants, and the coach of the Devils' 18-and-under Midget team. Part of his job is to teach players how to avoid the Big One.
At first, Cleveland was skeptical about USA Hockey's proposal. Gradually, his stance softened.
"I think something had to give," Cleveland said. "They're obviously finding that concussions are on the rise."
The medical impetus behind USA Hockey's proposal owes in part to a study published last summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers who compared Pee Wee hockey leagues in Canada found that 11- and 12-year-old players in league which allowed body checking were more than three times as likely to suffer a concussion or other severe injury than those in a league that didn't allow checking.
Younger brains -- those under the age of 18 -- are still developing and therefore more susceptible to injury, said Dr. Todd Barron, a pediatric neurologist for WellSpan in York.
"The way I view it," Barron said of the suggested plan, "it's a longer opportunity to teach these kids how to play properly."
That point -- learning how to play properly -- has been touted by USA Hockey, which hopes shunning checking will encourage Pee Wee players to develop their stick-handling and skating. The rules changes also would increase the allowable amount of body contact -- such as jostling for position along the boards -- at all levels leading up to Bantam.
"I think the people who have taken the time to be educated understand it," said Tom Koester, president of the Atlantic District, a subsidiary of USA Hockey that oversees Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "Some who haven't taken time to look into what went behind this proposal are not educated and say 'Oh, that's not the way hockey is played.'"
Still, many are not convinced.
Brian Doyle coached a York Devils Bantam team this past season and has two sons who play: Matt, 16, and Alex, 15. His objection, ironically, is about safety. Doyle worries players who aren't exposed to checking before they reach Bantam hockey will not know how to protect themselves. They won't know how to avoid the Big One.
Doyle's solution: Allow some sort of checking at the 10-and-under squirt level, when kids aren't strong enough to inflict the sort of punishment they can once they turn 13.
"Not just as a coach, but as a dad," Doyle said. "I'd rather have my kid grow up from a very young age knowing how to play a game that has contact safely."
Still, Doyle acknowledged he's running against a fierce headwind; most believe the checking proposal will pass.
It's already gotten a test run in this area. This past winter, the Central Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League voted halfway through its season to ban body checking in its middle school leagues.
The day after the change, CPIHL president Rex Rothrock found his email inbox bombarded by reactions. One mother approached Rothrock at a game and asked if he would be offering a refund. "We didn't pay all this money to play the game this way," Rothrock recalled her saying.
"I pointed at the scoreboard," Rothrock added, "and said 'That scoreboard doesn't keep track of checks.'"
Rothrock knows the sport's risks well; his daughter, Kelli, suffered a major concussion playing for Middletown's middle school team. Still, Rothrock said the CPIHL has not taken an official position on the proposal and has not decided whether to extend its checking ban into next season.
Rick Guinan calls himself a "dyed in the wool hockey traditionalist." But he also sees USA Hockey's proposal through another lens; Rick is an athletic trainer at Central York, well-versed in the vigilant atmosphere around brain injuries.
He gave the planned changes his full support.
"You're not going to ever totally eliminate them," Guinan said of concussions. "But you can take steps to make the game safer."
Unfortunately, the first part of that statement rings true. Patrick Guinan knows this. He was an aggressive player like his father, unafraid to throw around his stocky, 5-foot-5 body. But Patrick's Big One -- his sixth and most severe concussion -- didn't come on a vicious check. While driving toward the net one game, Patrick tripped over the goaltender and hurtled head-first into the goalpost. His symptoms from that blow-- headaches, inability to concentrate -- lingered several months.
Not long after, Patrick and his parents made the decision: No more contact sports. (He also played football.)
Two years later, Patrick misses hockey -- he said he'd play it again if he could. But besides the occasional headache, he feels healthy. He still plays baseball and is a catcher for Central York's junior varsity team this spring.
Despite his own experiences, Patrick was conflicted on USA Hockey's potential changes.
"The game is about hitting," Patrick said. "Well, not necessarily about hitting, but it's part of the game. And that's the way the game should be played.
"But for safety," he added. "I think it should be (passed)."