One of the raging debates in minor hockey and professional hockey circles is at what age to introduce Body Checking. At what age is a player ready to give and receive contact, and how do we measure what “ready” is?
A referee friend of mine was discussing this with me and he had to stop me and make sure we were talking about the same thing. The problem was, I was using two different terms interchangeably. Body CONTACT and Body CHECKING. The difference is very important.
Before I define those terms, I’ll use the universal term of “hitting”. The number one thing I think we need to do to prevent injuries of any nature that come from hitting is to educate our young players on what the purpose of hitting actually is. If we can’t agree on that, the rest of the conversation is 100% pointless.
Believe it or not, the true purpose of hitting isn’t to send someone’s head into the 14th row. It’s not to injure someone, or make them scared to touch the puck. It’s much more basic. As a parent, as a coach, as an ambassador for player safety, repeat after me: the purpose of a hockey hit is to separate your opponent from the puck. That’s it. All those other reasons above are what distinguishes hits into two categories: A hockey play and a non-hockey play.
As coaches and parents, it’s critical to introduce the hockey play concept as early and often as possible. Angling, body positioning, closing down space, and maintaining gap control. Look those terms up because they make all the difference in individual skill development. Hitting in the hockey play sense is simply a bi-product of doing these things well. If you angle someone properly with good body positioning, you’re eventually going to run into them, or hit them.
That’s the whole point, remember. To separate your opponent from the puck. If we’re teaching our players the right way to defend, we’re by default teaching them to collide. We’re encouraging contact. We’re creating the situation. So does it make sense to spend roughly the first 7-8 years of the careers of our developing players NOT teaching them how to hit, and in fact PENALIZING them if they do?
Before you lose your mind screaming and ranting about how I just proclaimed we need to let novice and atom players throw crash bang hits, please read the rest. We need to be clear on the language. This is where we distinguish between those two terms: Body CONTACT and Body CHECKING.
Body Contact is the natural conclusion to proper angling and positioning. It’s the inevitable collision between two bodies trying to get to the same space. Body contact is essentially the fulfillment of the purpose, to separate your opponent from the puck. This can be done by bumping shoulders, rubbing out, lifting the stick and boxing out, or gaining good body positioning and shielding, for example. All these forms of contact are very safe, and are necessary hockey plays.
Body Checking is the excess. It’s the act of thrusting forward to maximize the impact, or where a player actually jumps over the puck with the sole intention of finishing a check. This type of contact isn’t necessary in performing the purpose of a hit as I define it. At the lower ages, these examples should be considered non-hockey plays and should be penalized.
Using this distinct terminology, I see no problem with introducing body contact after novice initiation. Players would have at least two years of skating under their belts, and would just be getting into real games.
The obvious arguments against are:
1)kids aren’t developed enough to take contact.
2)there’s too much size and skill difference in the players.
3)they aren’t good enough skaters both with and without the puck.
1)Kids are developed enough to crash into the boards and each other accidentally all the time at full speed. They take contact, serious contact, and get up laughing.
2)There’s too much size and skill difference at every single level, and at least novice and atom players are only capable of doing relatively limited damage to each other. Would you rather have your child take a hit for the first time under controlled contact from the best 5 year old who’s 6 inches taller, or under full checking rules by a 13 year old who’s a foot and a half taller, 30 pounds heavier, and has never delivered a hit before in his life?
3)There are some fantastically skilled stick handlers and skaters out there that could handle this. Learning this now immediately promotes safe habits of keeping the head up with the puck, and safely angling without the puck. The less skilled skaters are the danger, but they’re the ones that need this the most. Too many kids go full tilt toward the boards or the opponent, and then just keep going. This contact is happening whether we teach it or not. If we promoted to these kids to stop striding a few steps before they reached another player and taught them how to let the other player run into them, the impact is lessened. By teaching and allowing body contact, we’re not telling them to take runs at each other. We’re introducing the exact opposite concept, a controlled finish by taking away space. Some kids may take liberties, but those kids are the same ones already taking those liberties. As a bonus, the more skilled players will learn more quickly how to recognize situations and protect themselves from these loose cannons before they’re big enough to inflict major damage.
I would then introduce full body checking in Pee Wee. Most kids would have 5-7 years of skating experience, and 3-5 years of introduction to body contact. With controlled contact as the habit and having instilled the purpose of separation vs. annihilation, the transition to body checking would be less extreme.
Based on the puck carrying habits of the most skilled young professionals in the game today who seem to repeatedly put themselves in vulnerable positions and expect the rules to protect them, something in the grass roots level has failed them. It’s time for a change.