Body-checking is illegal in girls and women’s hockey, which means there is no contact in any of their games, right?
Well, to be perfectly blunt: Wrong.
More nuanced: While body-checking is indeed illegal, body contact is not only legal but also inevitable in girls and women’s hockey. In fact, it’s an integral part of the game.
Because of that, USA Hockey’s American Development Model is changing the way body contact in girls hockey is not only perceived but taught at even the youngest levels, starting at 8U then continuing through 10U, 12U and beyond.
“We really need to be aware of body contact,” said Guy “Goose” Gosselin, USA Hockey ADM regional manager. “It’s my opinion that we don’t teach nearly enough of it as coaches. The teaching of it will evolve as we go, and it’s definitely an important aspect of the game.”
Learning the value
The mission in teaching girls how to properly and effectively use (and absorb) body contact is two-fold: creating players who not only improve their skills, but also are safer on the ice. That said, the safety piece tends to be a natural by-product of the improvement.
“We’re trying to promote this at the younger levels – stick on stick, hands on hands, hips through hands, angling out to come away with the puck,” Gosselin said. “You have to know what to expect when you’re in a game situation and coaches are telling you to give 100 percent. Things happen and you have to be aware of what’s going on around you.”
That starts in practice.
“Unless we do repetition in practice and teach the right way, players are not going to be effective in that situation,” Gosselin said.
When that teaching begins, it’s a good idea for coaches to educate parents on the benefits of their daughters learning body contact, said Kristen Wright, USA Hockey’s manager of girls player development. That way, there are no surprises, particularly since some parents might think of the girls game as a contact-free sport.
“We have body-contact clinics, and one reason we’re incorporating them is for parent communication,” Wright said. “It’s been surprisingly well-received. It’s one of the skills that has been least taught, and we have parents who want more on this topic. There are preconceived notions, but once they see that we’re teaching it, they receive it much better. And they see how much fun the kids have doing it.”
Possession and space
Among the many benefits of starting body-contact training at the early levels of girls hockey, two stand out.
First, with the ADM’s emphasis on cross-ice hockey as the best skill-development tool for younger players, 8U and 10U girls often find themselves in tight spaces. Cross-ice hockey creates twice as many puck battles on average compared to full-ice hockey at that age.
“The smaller spaces at 8U and 10U both during games and practices are going to increase body contact and the confidence during a game setting,” Wright said. “When teaching body contact, we want coaches to create small-area games with more board battles.”
Second, developing good body-contact skills in the formational years will make those habits seem like second-nature, whereas an older player suddenly having to adjust their game might struggle.
“You’re going to develop smarter, more confident hockey players when you work on this during the prime skill-development windows at 10U and 12U,” Wright added. “It’s more difficult to teach these fundamental skills after girls have hit their growth spurt and after the prime skill acquisition window. Ten- or 12-year-olds won’t even be thinking about it as a skill, but instead will be having fun with the drills and games.”
Added Gosselin: “As coaches, we could do ourselves a favor by going the extra mile for our players to implement age-appropriate body-contact training from the get-go, at the youngest ages. The game today is played in small spaces, at all levels.”
Teaching on- and off-ice
So what does teaching body contact at those levels look like, exactly?
For players, the first piece of education should begin with off-ice drills. The reasoning is, at that age, there can be pretty big gaps in skating ability between players. Taking drills off the ice removes those disparities from the equation.
“We’ll pair up players of like size and strength and teach players contact-ready positioning and do side shoulder bumps,” Wright said of off-ice drills. “We will add push and pull drills and progressions that involve reading and reacting to see how that feels on a level playing field.”
For 10U and 12U, though, the recommendation is that players also work on body-contact drills on-ice during practices. During those practices, coaches should teach how to take away time and space, proper stick positioning and how to angle a player toward spaces you want them to occupy, creating what Wright calls “contact confidence” in young players.
U.S. Olympian Kacey Bellamy
Advice from an Olympian
Wright and Gosselin are both adamant that body contact needs to be taught more regularly and at earlier ages in the girls game. If you need any more convincing, let’s hear from two-time Olympian Kacey Bellamy, who plays defense for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
“I think it is crucial for girls, and especially those who are hoping to play at the highest level, to be introduced to body contact and taught the skills of body contact at the younger ages so they can build strength overall, mentally and physically, and develop their awareness,” Bellamy said. “Body positioning, angling and timing are all key components to body checking, and if you can build those instincts at a young age, it will help develop their hockey sense. It is also important that female athletes work on their off-ice conditioning and strength training to become stronger and faster so that they can use their speed and physicality together on the ice.”
It creates players who are better, safer and more well-rounded.
“It’s important to teach players to be aware of their surroundings; I knew where the boards were, where the opponent was, and I learned to keep my head up when I had the puck,” Bellamy added. “For females at a young age, it is crucial to learn the basics in body contact to keep yourself safe and also improve your game as a whole.”