Q: My son plays 14U hockey and his coach constantly screams “finish your check!” We often have more hits than our opponent, but we rarely out score them. Is this a good tactic?
A: As hockey continues its evolution, offensive tactics such as skating, speedy transitions, thinking, passing, puck possession and scoring have become higher priorities. As part of that change, the “finish-your-check” game plan may have your child’s team focusing on the wrong objective, which undoubtedly leads to frustration within the team.
The object of the game of hockey is to outscore your opponent. Building the skills and understanding of the offensive and defensive game should be the coach’s top priority. Yes, full body-checking is allowed at 14U, but checking should be used as a tool to angle players away from the dangerous areas of the ice or separate the opponent from the puck. Using checking as an intimidation factor or primary objective may provide a short-term victory, but it’ll be difficult to win consistently over the long term with that approach.
An NHL stat that has caught my attention of late is the “hit” stat. More times than not, the NHL team that leads a game in hits often loses on the scoreboard. To me this is an obvious outcome. Why? Because the team that has the puck does not need to hit. They’re busy creating offensive scoring chances. Meanwhile, the team that does not have the puck spends its time and energy hitting and chasing after the puck.
To be clear, knowing when to finish your check is a good habit for the players to understand. Playing physical and competing is very important to being a successful hockey player. Finishing your check is an important component in creating a physical element to your team game and impeding opponents’ offensive thrusts. Finishing your check on an opposing puck-carrier who is within two stride lengths makes sense, especially if good technique is used by the checking player, i.e., using the proper angle, forcing the puck carrier into uncomfortable spaces on the ice, playing stick-on-stick and ultimately stealing the puck or forcing a turnover.
However, finishing all of your checks is detrimental to the team game as well. Often I notice players running around to finish checks four to eight strides away. This tactic takes those would-be checkers out of position and leaves them vulnerable defensively, especially when playing against a smart puck-moving team. Players who chase the hit have a hard time recovering back into the play and are often left behind and out of position.
Hopefully your coach has a plan to continue to develop skill and hockey sense so your team gains the ability to score goals at the 14U level, because that’s what ultimately nurtures talent and wins games.
The game has changed. Playing tough and competitive has a new meaning in today’s game. I would encourage your players to be disciplined in their checking game. I would encourage coaches to add a team toughness component reflected not in racking up more hits, but rather in being strong on the puck, getting to pucks first, winning one-on-one battles, playing successfully in traffic, backchecking hard, scoring second-effort goals and taking a hit to make a play. This type of toughness, combined with appropriate body-checking, will lead to a well-rounded physical game. Combining that with offensive skills will create a positive environment for team and individual success.
The author, Joe Bonnett, has more than 20 years of hockey coaching experience, including 18 seasons at the NCAA Division I level. Before entering the college ranks, he was a 12U and 16U coach in Michigan.
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