This is not the first time I have written on the subject of bodychecking, though with Hockey Canada recently reforming their rules, I thought it would be a good time to add my two cents — again. It is certainly entertaining to say the least the reaction of people over the last few weeks about banning bodychecking until the Bantam level. The governing body in the United States, USA Hockey, already implemented the exact rule back in 2011. So now the two big hockey power nations in North America are on the same page — in theory.
The concussion and head shot topic has been a hot one for a few years now, especially revolving around the National Hockey League. Rule 48 was employed three years ago and today we see suspensions for any lateral or blind-side hit. Now the powers at be in the Maple Leaf homeland have decided that bodychecking is no longer legal at the U12/Pee Wee age group.
The out roar has been plenty and this retort is quite similar to what happened in the States only a couple of years ago. In fact, people in Manitoba are already forming a pee wee league allowing bodychecking, ignoring the recent rule adoption by Hockey Canada that bans checking until age 13. If you jump onto message boards it is quite evident the majority believe the rule is unsuitable and people feel the skill of bodychecking should be taught early in one’s hockey career.
Bodychecking is really another skill —
Yes, body checking is a skill and a competence that needs to be taught. Now speaking from experience, I feel the problem stems directly from the education in coaching and officiating.
Although body checking does not become legal until the Bantam level in the USA, I have been coaching my team of 2001s since their Squirt/Atom days. Hockey is a physical game, checking is part of the game and will probably always be a part of the game. Like skating, stick handling, passing, and shooting you teach kids early.
Now with both North American hockey countries changing the bodychecking age to age 13, are we making the game safer, retaining players, and developing more skill by pushing back to Bantams or are we sweeping it under the rug and creating a bigger problem down the road? This is the debate that will carry on in hockey lobbies for years to come.
At all age groups there is a great deal of body contact or at least the potential. Players are on ice with stainless steel metal blades, composite sticks, a three by one inch black disc, confined by boards and glass. The laws of motion and inertia will explain the physics of it all. In layman’s terms the game of hockey is fast and physical. Players need to know how to play with and without the puck along the boards or in open ice. This skill can be developed through various drills over time whereby players gain confidence thus knowing they can compete successfully with body contact. Proper execution and repetition speaks volumes.
First and foremost, players need to develop the most important ability in skating. It’s the central system of a true hockey player. It directly relates to all other skills and body contact and checking is no different. Coaches can concentrate early on the techniques of angling which encompasses balance/agility, confrontation along the boards and in open-ice, fore-checking, and back-checking. This then leads to the progression of using the shoulder or hip to perform a body check.
A problem I see at the youth level with body checking is that the true concept is not engrained in young player’s heads. First, it is simply the physical separation of a player off the puck — period. Secondly, coaches need to promote respect. Too often we see players disparaging others by trying to take the player out of the game. The players are either leading with their elbows and targeting the opposition’s head or total disregard that their opponent is in a vulnerable position and could be actually more effectively and safer if they had played with a stick check or pinned the opposition. The head and back injuries happen because many coaches on the ice during practice do not take the time to show players various scenarios of boarding, checking-from-behind, charging, and slew-footing, etc. The do’s and don’ts need to be verbally and visually taught. Let’s stop concentrating so much on power play systems and neutral zone traps, and really develop skills head-to-toe, front-to-back. Believe me, those great fore-checking and breakout schemes work better anyways as kids progressively get older and their minds advance.
Many players think checking is to decapitate the opposition and make sure his head and body ends up in upper deck. Coaches need to influence the right message. The use of video to watch effective body checkers like Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and former Red Wing, Nicklas Lidstrom can also be used. They both are and were so successful using their body properly by bending knees, elbows/hands down, not committing too soon, not lunging, not leaving their feet, not targeting the head in order to separate the man from the puck, or plainly just utilizing their stick to steal the puck. Datsyuk is a genuine magician with the puck and we all know that for sure. Yet I am not sure we pay close enough attention to his defensive game and more so the way he so effectively uses his body correctly to gain possession and protect the puck.
The other approach that has deficiencies in youth hockey with many players is how to receive a bodycheck or contact. It seems today many kids lack that essential hockey sense or awareness of all other players on the ice and how the play is developing. They approach the puck in corner or along the boards like they are the only player on the ice. But that seems about right, since mom & dad think the same way too because their kid doesn’t pass and only thinks about goals anyway. But in all serious, players need to give a quick peek over the shoulder when chasing a puck down and constantly take mental snap shots of where players are and anticipation of where they will be. Yes, the onus is on the body checker, but more times I see players or even teammates just not see the play evolving, resulting in a “buddy pass” or an injury that most certainly could have been avoided.
Half the time players can simply elude the check by stopping, cutting, and moving away swiftly or rolling off the contact while still maintaining possession of the puck. Though if a player does connect with his body check then players need to try and keep skates parallel to boards, keep a low center of gravity, not leaving skates, and protect themselves.
Many have promoted the ‘Heads up Hockey’ motto for years. When you skate your head should be up panning the ice. When you stick handle the head is up to avoid defenders and contact, thus ready to execute your next move. When you pass the head needs to be up to see the ice and open teammates as well as not exposing your teammate with a bad pass. When you shoot your head needs to be up as well in order to fake the shot or find the open gaps the goalie is giving to light the lamp. It makes sense to keep the head up when receiving and giving a check too. As I tell my kids, get that head on a swivel.
In all essence, when the game is played right there is more body contact than checking, simply separating the player from puck. It is a compliment skill to puck control and player positioning.
Qualified coaching —
I give a lot of credit to the dad or even moms in some cases that volunteer their time out on the ice to coach and to be involved with their son’s hockey career. Yet many coaches in the youth levels have never experienced body checking because they never played the game. So how is someone supposed to properly teach the many skills of the game like skating as well as body checking? People will say there are limited qualified coaches, so you do the next best thing and sign up anybody willing to coach who is unqualified. The problem is now you are creating the concussion and injury problem.
In Europe, players are being properly cultivated since the coaches are required to have played and experienced the game at fairly high level. To believe that an athlete can become a highly-skilled hockey player when the coach teaching the players has little if any significant hockey skill training background or education in the biomechanics of the sport is wishful thinking.
Now the coaches do not have to be ex-NHLers donating their time like Matthew Barnaby, Rory Fitzpatrick, Pat Peake, Adam Foote, Keith Tkachuk, or Keith Primeau though having coaches with NCAA or junior hockey familiarity will certainly pay dividends. Having personnel that learned it, lived it, and loved it is the difference maker for today’s youth, tomorrow’s future stars, and the life of the game.
USA Hockey’s on-line modules and clinic requirements helps the cause just as Hockey Canada will roll out a national checking educational and instructional program for coaches. But let’s be honest, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada need more qualified coaches who played the game. Until you’ve worked in the trenches on the manufacturing line it’s difficult to become a successful white collar executive overnight. Technology and classroom instruction is fine by design, though there is nothing like the real thing.
Qualified officiating important too –
Unlike many coaches at the youth level, officials actually pocket some coin for reffing hockey games. But in all fairness, the coaches who volunteer seem to be more passionate than the officials. From a coach’s perspective, the majority of the time it seems the refs are trying to complete game as soon as possible. Apparently they have something better to do or don’t approach the game as a learning experience for the players. Not all officials are more interested on the free cup of coffee in the lobby and the pay, although as a whole I struggle mightily with the quality of officiating in the States. I applaud the zebras for giving their time, but let’s all be 100% in effort and on the same page.
A better focus needs to be placed with refs just as with coaches. Little money or time is truly devoted to officials at the youth levels and they are one of the most important factors in promoting safety for players. Absolutely I agree that kids should be bodychecking legally with the education from coaches and held accountable themselves. Although when illegal contact is made and “gooning” is brewing then the officials need to step in to make the game safer.
On the flip side, I also see refs go whistle happy. Because a bigger kid makes contact with a smaller sized player who falls and sometimes in exaggerated fashion, a penalty is called. Now in this instance kids are receiving mixed signals between what their coach is teaching and the calls be made out on the ice by the officials. As a coach, I always personally point out to my kids if the contact was good or bad and why. Yes, being a ref is a very difficult duty and I give a tremendous amount of credit to many who take the abuse from coaches, parents, and players. Though with more training and better enforcement with the officiating the game will be safer and players will be more cultured as well.
Equipment of today —
With today’s technology and equipment the players are protected better than ever before. Now the armor-all shoulder pads of the present day probably need to be tamed down instead of being so concrete-like. Though coaches and officials need to make sure players helmets are properly secure and mouth guards correctly used.
Engineers and manufacturers spend a tremendous amount of resources developing equipment for better safety. We need to continue to take full advantage of our knowledge and capabilities in designing suitable helmets, mouth guards, and other protective gear.
Perhaps bodychecking only for the elite —
Some have suggested that the aspect of body checking at the youth levels be for the elite, travel, or rep teams. Although some immediately argue the point from research conducted on concussions and how it pertains to players at certain age groups. I am not going to dispute the research, although I will mention two thoughts.
One, players at the higher levels of travel/rep hockey is usually there because they possess more skills. Probably one of the biggest attributes is the hockey IQ as I mentioned prior. They see the game better, anticipate better, and just have greater awareness in order to avoid checks and injury. Secondly, the travel/rep kid normally cares more about the game, respects the game, and has a dying passion for the game. Their goal is to get better and showcase their skills so they potentially can play the game at the highest level or somewhere near the top on the hockey pyramid. They develop the checking skill to use to their advantage because it is part of the game, not to send someone to the hospital or end their career.
There is a tad of logic to this concept, though is there enough supporting evidence to allow the travel player bodycheck at the younger ages is another question.
Personal experience to bodychecking —
In my career, I was fortunate enough not to ever be concussed (that I know of) or really have a major injury. I was not the biggest of players yet I was able to find a ways to be successful because I could skate and owned that invaluable hockey sense. I learned early how to avoid checks, read plays, and be nimble on my boots.
The hardest hit I took was during my college days in the mid-90s. While on the road playing the Clarkson Golden Knights inside a packed Cheel Arena, a 1993 4th round selection of the Montreal Canadians, Jean-Francois Houle, connected with me pretty good in open ice as I unwisely admired my breakout pass. Although, there were two really good things about this particular hit on that Saturday night. First, Houle hit me clean with his shoulder to my chest area, hands down, using a low center of gravity for power. He did not blind-side me or focus on my head. He just properly did his job by finishing his check and gave me a good licking at the same time. On the flip side, I had my helmet fastened well, my mouth guard fully intact, and braced myself for the impact at the last second because I had been checked since age 11 at the travel level. Over time and years of experience I had gained confidence to not only give, but also to receive a bodycheck.
There is a parallel of teaching bodychecking and contact early to how children learn in school and about life. The concepts of addition and subtraction are not introduced at age 13 or the 8th grade, instead early in the elementary grades. The foundation is formed strategically which then progresses through the years. It develops in to multiplication and division and so on and so forth. The skill of body checking as mentioned is taught through skating which then leads in to contact and then finally checking. It is not a flip of the light switch concept. I am all for tough consequences for illegal hits at a young age too. But if we teach properly from the get-go then then hopefully the game will not have violent, illegal body checks and the game will be benefited by all.
What to do for youth hockey —
I am not saying the changing of the checking age is bad. I am all for the rapid progression in kids to develop the various skills to become elite hockey players. What I am conveying is that you just cannot snap your fingers and magically have that proficiency overnight. It takes years to acquire the proper technique to perform the slap shot or to skate skillfully. The art of bodychecking is really no different. Should bodychecking be allowed only during practice until Bantams? Perhaps. Should bodychecking be allowed only at the travel/rep level? Maybe so. I do not have all the answers, I am simply offering my opinion from my past playing days and current perspective as a youth hockey coach and amateur scout.
Bodychecking does not need to necessarily be a part of games at the early ages though it should most definitely be taught throughout the years in practice. There is a benefit for muscle memory maturity and the psychological growth aspect as well.
Believe me, I wish I were the God of hockey because I would have the perfect solution for the betterment of the game and would be making millions. But I can tell you this. More qualified coaches at the youth levels who appropriately educate will do a world of good for this game as it relates to bodychecking. You will see a more skilled and safer game. Teachers in the school systems inspire kids and help create tomorrow’s future, why are coaches any different. Plus a compliment of competent officiating and enhanced equipment should assistant for the greater good of the game.
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