Hockey is a physical game. And just like skating, passing, stickhandling and shooting require practice and skill development, so too does body contact and body-checking.
Players should be learning these vital skills through age-appropriate methods at every level, but 12U is a crucial preparatory stage. For boys, body-checking is on the horizon, and for girls, the game becomes more physical as well.
Brian Durocher is head coach of the Boston University women’s team. Body-checking isn’t allowed in girls’ and women’s hockey, but proper body contact and angling are still paramount to success.
So with legal body-checking approaching at 14U (for boys) and increasingly physical play beginning for girls, here are five ways 12U players should prepare:
Skating Still Paramount
Skating is the foundation of hockey. Even NHL players work on it constantly. Developing a low center of gravity, agility and speed are critical elements to proper angling and body-checking.
“Somebody who pivots and turns well, those are the types of checks you like to see,” said Durocher, who led the Terriers to a 25-8-3 record in 2014-15. “You want players to be able to go forward and backwards and move around and work through those checks. It’s a great defensive tool when combined in a check.”
Strong skaters are the best anglers and body-checkers.
12U players should be familiarizing themselves with body contact.
“Every practice should include at least 10 minutes of body contact and slight checking preparation, sometimes more as they get closer to that bantam (14U) age,” Durocher said. “You don’t want them to move up a level and have no idea what they’re doing. If they get in over their head, that’s when things can get problematic.”
One easy way to incorporate body contact in practice is through small-area games. Players automatically become more comfortable in tight spaces through small-area competition, which teaches body contact in a controlled, organic way, through the style of play itself.
Players must also learn how and where to make contact with their opponent.
“Stay in the middle or below the player’s crest,” said Durocher, referring to the front of the jersey. “Use your hip and shoulders for a nice clean hit. Remember, this isn’t about going out and tackling a player like in football or going for a vicious hit. It’s about completing a good, clean check that will benefit your team.”
Strength training should become a part of the 12U player’s diet. Placing an emphasis on core strength will help them feel more comfortable in body-contact situations.
“A strong core is one of the biggest assets a player has in giving and receiving a hit,” said Durocher. “Building your core not only gets you stronger, but it also protects you on the ice, balance-wise.”
Jumping jacks, planks, sit-ups, body-weight squats, lunges and one-legged hops are all great ways to strengthen a player’s core without using weights. Emphasize use of the inside edges (even in shoes) during body-weight squat sets to give it a hockey-specific flavor. At 12U, light weights can be also introduced into a players workout routine, but don’t go overboard. Heavy weight regiments put too much stress on their body and actually stunt growth at this age. Strength training becomes more crucial at the next stage of development, 14U/16U; at 12U, the focus should be on body-weight exercises and developing proper form.
Receiving a Check
Knowing how to properly receive a check is as important as knowing how to give one. A player going into the boards with the wrong type of body position can often end up suffering consequences.
“What you see too many times is kids who get scared when they see the check coming,” Durocher said. “When they do that, their first instinct to duck and that’s when we have players who get hurt.”
Instead of ducking, players should keep their head up and be aware of the boards, and their opponent, when preparing for a check. Simply practicing with teammates in a controlled, low-speed setting will help alleviate nerves and ingrain proper technique.
Remember the Purpose of Checking
Checking isn’t about size or intimidation. It’s about removing your opponent from the puck. As coaches, let’s not measure body-checking, or “hits,” as many incorrectly categorize it, in terms of quantity and ferocity, but in forced turnovers and team puck possession instead.
“Don’t let hitting or being hit be the biggest emphasis in the game of hockey,” Durocher reminds. “Don’t let it be the focus and get in the way of the game we love.”
For more information, read the Checking Manual developed by the USA Hockey.