Body-checking isn’t legal in USA Hockey-sanctioned youth leagues until the 14U level for boys, and for good reason. Until then, players are developing basic skills while also adjusting to their growing bodies.
That said, the fact that body-checking is not allowed in games at the 8U, 10U and 12U levels doesn’t mean fundamentals of body checking can’t be taught and practiced along the way. Quite the contrary, they not only can be – they should be, in order to ensure that players are ready for the jump into increasingly physical play at 14U.
And girls should not be exempt from learning proper body contact and angling. Look no further than the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team’s gold-medal victory over Canada to see how physical and fast women’s hockey has become. Body contact is not only a part of the game, but a key to puck possession and success, at all levels of the sport.
It’s akin, say, to our civic duty. Voting isn’t legal until age 18, but we still teach kids about government and help them build the base for making knowledgeable decisions when the time comes for them to vote. We should be doing the same with the building blocks of body contact and body-checking.
Guy Gosselin, a two-time U.S. Olympian and longtime regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has some tips for how to facilitate that growth along the way.
How the game is played
Even at the 8U level, teaching the fundamentals of body contact is appropriate because it’s about so much more than delivering a body check.
“It’s about possessing the puck and how you use your body effectively on the ice,” said Gosselin. “The definition used to be to remove your man from the puck – the purpose of a check. Not to remove him from consciousness.”
Gosselin, a former standout defenseman for the University of Minnesota Duluth in the mid-1980s who had a brief NHL career with the Winnipeg Jets, came of age in a much different era but can appreciate how hockey has evolved.
“Today, it’s more about using proper angling and positioning to gain control of the puck,” he said. “That’s the emphasis that we’re teaching.”
So how do you start working on body-checking with 8U players? The key takeaway from Gosselin is that, at 8U, it’s all about getting players comfortable with the inevitable contact that happens in hockey.
“We’re promoting smaller areas, less space, more body-contact situations,” Gosselin said. “We’re letting kids know that it’s OK and you’re going to get bumped into and that’s ice hockey. We put an emphasis on safety and what to do and what’s OK and not OK.”
Teaching kids – and parents – about safety and how contact doesn’t have to be scary is a big deal.
“You’re fully padded. Once you learn how to fall and understand you might get bumped into, it’s OK,” Gosselin said. “If you don’t make a big deal about it, it doesn’t become such a big issue in kids’ minds. Obviously, there are certain things you need to discuss, and if a kid is prone and has his head down, you should talk to him about getting his head up and protecting himself. You learn from that, and we’re trying to teach that.”
More teaching needed
Too many clubs and teams are playing catch-up when it comes to teaching these concepts to young players.
“Unfortuantely, not a large percentage of coaches are actively teaching body contact skills,” he added. “I’m starting to see more hands raised in terms of who is teaching it, but it should be every hand. It’s a critical skill for success and safety. USA Hockey is making it a point of emphasis with new materials for teaching body contact and body-checking, so that should help, but it really rests with coaches throughout the country making it a priority.”
Gosselin, who says he has a “passion for this subject,” believes starting to teach body-checking concepts at the 8U level is a great way to increase contact confidence in players and reduce anxiety in parents
“We want to develop more confident and capable players, and retain those players,” Gosselin said. “Stability equals performance. We’re dealing with less parental anxiety; going the extra mile for players. Obviously hockey is all about having fun and recreating. But it’s not fun if you’re sitting on your rear end and you’re not able to be stable on the ice.”
And the ultimate goal is that if you start early enough, by the time body-checking is allowed in games, everyone will be ready for it and ready to use it to succeed.
“As the kids get older, and it’s time to start full body-checking, there is an increased anxiety. Mom and dad are talking about it. Kids are talking about it. So we try to address the stress and let kids know that it’s OK,” Gosselin said. “You’re going to get knocked down, and you might knock some people down. Here’s how to address that and here’s how to become more stable on the ice. Get your knees bent, get your head up and have body awareness. And with all that, then you can utilize body contact and body-checking to succeed on the ice, and that's a great thing."