Physical play is part of hockey. Contact along the walls, in the neutral zone and other spots where puck battles occur is just one of the many reasons we love playing the game.
However, physical play isn’t about the big hit at center ice that leaves an opponent injured or struggling to get up. For players transitioning to bantam levels, where body checking is allowed for the first time, it’s important that they learn what body checking really is. Body contact and body checking is a skill, just like stickhandling, passing, shooting, skating, etc.
The media sometimes encourages a misperception of body checking’s true purpose.
Paul Pearl, head men’s hockey coach at Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass., believes young players frequently forget that checking is about puck possession, not throwing the biggest hit on an opponent.
“The biggest thing we have to teach is that checking is about separating the player from the puck,” Pearl says. “You’re not trying to separate a kid’s body from his head. Checking is part of hockey, but it isn’t about the biggest hits.”
Checking is needed to create offense and play well defensively. So how can peewees (12U) prepare for the world of body checking that awaits them at bantam?
Small Areas, Tight Spaces
Small-area games and station-based practices should ease the transition naturally. Through these activities, kids learn how to navigate in tight spaces while maintaining body control. Engaging in puck battles will familiarize players with contact and puck possession.
Creating these environments for our players will give them confidence when it comes time to body check.
The Four Steps
Positioning and angling, stick checking, body contact and body checking are the four steps to safely and effectively learning how to check. At 12U, players should be at the fourth and final stage of learning how to body check.
Here are the different body-checking techniques that should be learned:
Read Checking the Right Way for Youth Hockey for more information and specific instructions into each of these techniques.
Players shouldn’t focus solely on learning how body check an opponent. They should also be learning how to receive a body check. It is a key component of not only helping your team maintain possession of the puck, but also protecting yourself.
To avoid the check, try using deceptive head, stick or body fakes to mislead the opponent. Changing your skating pace can also be a useful technique for misleading the opponent.
If you can’t avoid a body check, position your body to accept it safely. Keep your head up and try to maintain a low center of gravity with knees bent. Know where the boards are.
Watch this Heads Up, Don’t Duck video to learn how to protect yourself against dangerous hits along the boards.
A Better Game
In his own experience, Pearl has seen improvement from players in Massachusetts by watching son’s games. Delaying body checking until bantam didn’t remove all of the contact from the game, but it did open the ice up for more playmaking and skating.
“The best teams win games, and the best teams score goals,” Pearl says. “I think it’s allowed for more skill development. If you have a kid who’s not as developed as others, and he can let his skills develop in peewee, he’ll be better prepared for checking as a bantam.
“My son is (1999 birth year), and he came into peewee being able to check his first year then he couldn’t his second year because of the rule changes,” he says. “From what I saw, it was just a better game. Pushing checking back doesn’t take away contact, but it does allow players to develop their skills without worrying about getting decked.”
Not everyone experiences growth spurts at the same age. Delaying body checking until bantams helps avoid some of these disparities, and, again, helps slighter boys improve skills on the puck before they have to worry about it.
“When we bring checking into the game, players are going through puberty,” Pearl says. “So you’ll see a lot of size mismatches, with some kids just not as big as others. Pushing checking back to the bantam level gives those players more time to develop physically.”
As a result of adjustments to the rules, Pearl believes youth hockey in Massachusetts – and the United States as a whole – has started producing better players. A greater focus on skill development and increased hockey sense means players of all sizes are better equipped to contribute in all aspects of the sport.
As they progress to the bantam level, they’re better prepared to make and take hits because their understanding of checking’s value is greater.
“I think as a lot of these kids from the ‘97, ‘98 and ‘99 birth years get into college or juniors, Massachusetts Hockey is going to see kind of a rebirth because of these changes,” Pearl says. “These kids have learned how to play with checking, but they’ve also spent more time developing their skills on the puck.”
The physical component of hockey is part of what makes it a beautiful sport. In recent years, however, increased focus on player safety and skill development have put a greater emphasis on learning to hit as part of general offensive and defensive strategy.
In the eyes of Pearl and countless others, these adjustments have helped young hockey players learn the true purpose of body checking and how to do it more effectively. There will always be some risk associated with hockey, but teaching children to play the right way negates it to a large extent.