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 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 10U 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.”
Developing body-checking and body positioning skills align closely with the ADM. There is an emphasis on small-ice games and working in high-traffic small spaces – things coaches are naturally doing already.
“It’s all about practices with small-area games and stations with more body contact involved,” Gosselin said in regard to how to work on contact confidence and skills at the 10U level. “You should also teach players the idea of playing stick-on-puck defensively, tracking the puck and mirroring players, as well as proper angles to use in forechecking, defensive play and play along the boards.”
The idea is to teach players how to create turnovers and increase puck possession, things that will serve them well no matter their age. They might not even know that they’re working on it if it’s taught the right way.
“When we’re teaching the stuff it doesn’t have to be, ‘OK, we’re going to work on body contact,’” Gosselin said. “You can disguise this stuff in practices. Give constructive feedback when it’s needed and keep it a really positive environment. These are 10-year-old kids.”
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.”
Remember your subjects
In teaching body-checking concepts at the 10U level, though, it’s important to remember the physical capabilities and limitations of the kids, Gosselin said.
“You have to consider the average skill sets of these players,” he said. “We need to take responsibility to implement this stuff in an age-appropriate fashion.”
That means keeping players under control and understanding kids at that age can vary greatly in size, strength and skill.
“Close and slow is the focus at 10U. We’re not letting them take a run at each other from the blue line,” Gosselin said. “It’s more about technical stuff and giving them the opportunity to be able to make the proper play, angling, stick-on-puck and getting hips through hands.”