At a time when player safety and sportsmanship are hot-button issues in youth sports, USA Hockey took a proactive step this summer toward reiterating how seriously it takes such matters.
The governing body unanimously ratified the Declaration of Player Safety, Fair Play and Respect as a means toward re-emphasizing its zero tolerance policy regarding hits to the head, hits from behind and late hits – as well as to clarify what a legal body check looks like in particular as it becomes more top of mind at the 12U level.
“I think we need to do a better job of creating awareness in terms of player development and safety,” said Guy Gosselin, a regional manger for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
Gosselin is quick to note, though, that the ratification of the declaration didn’t change any rules. Rather, it merely serves to reiterate priorities and policies that were already in place.
“We’re stepping back and re-rolling out this awareness and the rules that are currently on the book need to be enforced,” said Gosselin, a two-time U.S. Olympian. “There’s a major emphasis with sport leaders in the full body contact sports to make it safer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends full body checking should not begin until age 15. The Mayo Clinic has advocated removing body checking from games at 14U. We’ve had people from our safety committees go before congress [USA Hockey Manager of Player Safety Kevin Margarucci testified in front of a House Committee at a hearing on Concussion in Youth Sports: Evaluating Prevention and Research]. We have a responsibility to keep our players safe. I think the game is evolving in the right direction, no doubt about it.”
Some of what USA Hockey is preaching might look different than how hockey looked a generation ago.
“The major issues are hits to the head, from behind, or to a defenseless player,” Gosselin says. “We’re at the point now where back in the day it used to be – 20 or 30 years ago – it was to set a tempo or pace – to intimidate – as a body check. Then it became separate the player from the puck. Now we’re at regain possession of the puck. There’s certain ways to do that.”
A lot of that comes from educating coaches and parents – and most importantly players – on the progression of body contact so they can do it safely and effectively while still honoring the physical nature of the sport of hockey.
“It’s part of the game, and then we need to utilize the materials we have in place,” Gosselin said. “At 8U there’s bumping and that’s OK. At 10U we’re looking at mirroring, tracking and angling. And 12U full body contact in practice. There’s a progression to this skill and we don’t just want to throw the kids into the fire at certain ages. If a coach at 10U hasn’t worked on those components, then at 12U we’re going to be deficient in that area.”
As part of the emphasis on safety and sportsmanship, USA Hockey is also working on tighter enforcement of a rule that assesses a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct to a team whose players bang their sticks on the boards after an “unnecessary or illegal body check.”
“The rule has been on the books,” Gosselin said. “You see it at various levels where banging on the boards creates a heightened environment. When your guy runs their guy, tensions escalate. Depending on what level and what age you’re playing, it has some ill effects.”
It could, for instance, lead to bigger and dirtier hits – putting more players at risk of serious injury.
“They’re not trying to take the flavor out of the game by any means,” Gosselin said. “When you score a goal or make a great play, awesome. Celebrate. We’re trying to de-escalate a potentially dangerous environment.”
Many of the safety goals go hand in hand with the shifting trends in how the sport is played, Gosselin says.
“We’re all about strong hockey players that can possess the puck,” Gosselin said. “Auston Matthews is a big, strong guy. But he doesn’t go around running people and trying to take their head off. He’s going to retain possession and work at keeping it. That’s what it is. It’s a possession game today. It’s played in tight areas.”
Parents might struggle with the changes because old-time hockey was often about intimidation and big hits – sometimes at the expense of playing the puck
“For mom and dad to grasp this, they’re going to have to look at the information that’s out there and keep that coming,” Gosselin said. “The progression we’re teaching kids is going to wind up at high level hockey. So what we’re doing right now is promoting coaching education, parent education, referee education. Electronically and at coaching clinics, there’s an emphasis on body contact.”
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