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
Particularly at the 12U level, with boys just one step away from being able to body-check during games, and the intensity of the girls’ game ramping up, teaching the fundamentals of body contact is critical.
“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.”
The fine line
Gosselin says it’s important to reinforce the notion that body contact is about gaining puck possession, lest 12U players get the wrong idea and start trying to hurl themselves at each other.
“Safety in sports, concussion awareness and protecting young athletes in all sports is key,” Gosselin said. “The game has changed. You don’t run around just clobbering somebody with no purpose. It’s all about puck possession and using your body efficiently. You can be tough without running around being reckless.”
To that end, Gosselin encourages coaches to implement that information into drills and talk about proper angling – which includes how players can protect themselves and the puck when going into the boards. Teaching those concepts at 12U involves a lot of small-area games that put an emphasis on effective body contact.
“Do a drill with a forecheck and make sure forwards are taking ice away and developing good habits and playing according to sound concepts,” Gosselin said, adding that he challenges coaches to make sure they are teaching technical skills and not just Xs and Os. “Reinforcing proper angling and timing is key, and so is giving that feedback. It’s the art of coaching and giving feedback. If you implement this stuff into practices, you develop players with a better skill set.”
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.”
The final word
Kids at the 12U level mature at different rates, and that fact is important to remember particularly when drills involving contact come into play. But regardless of whether they’re early bloomers with advanced skills or normal-paced in their development, the skills of body contact can and should be taught.
“Whether we’re talking about the 98 percent or the 2 percent, you can teach them technical body contact in practice,” said Gosselin.
In the end, it’s about giving kids the tools they need to succeed. If there’s a proper progression of teaching contact – from an introduction at the 8U and 10U levels to more concentrated drill work at the 12U level before the real deal at 14U – players will be ready for it.
“All of this teaching progresses into the later years, if they’re provided this proper base,” Gosselin said. “You’re talking about when to engage, anticipating the play, understanding the numbers. The game is played in waves, and as you get older, you have to understand that. It’s just instilling proper skills and confidence in our players.”