Power | Checking in or checking out?

The art and skills of body contact need to be taught earlier, rather than later, to young hockey players, writes columnist Don Power.

The skill of body contact should be taught earlier, not later

Hockey Alberta has banned body checking for peewee-level players, which will take effect this fall. (CBC)

Anybody who’s watched a minor hockey game has seen this picture before. There’s a hotshot player zipping around the ice in an atom game, scoring at will, hogging the puck from goal line to goal line. He’s single-handedly dominating the game, because his skills are superior to those of his teammates and opponents.

Simply put, nobody can skate with him, few can stickhandle the way he does and no one can shoot like he does, either. His team is the best in the league — not because it’s the best team, but because he is the best player.

In atom hockey, one player can win games for you easily enough. The parents of this kid get all wrapped up in the skill level and abilities of the child. They begin to see dollar signs, and picture him standing on a blue line of their favourite NHL club, listening to the national anthem prior to a game.

But the veteran parents of older children and grizzled old coaches have seen his kind before, and they have a saying: "Wait till he gets to peewee. Then we’ll see what kind of a hockey player he is."

Because for the most part, peewee is where the art — nay, skill! — of body checking is introduced into the sport. Boys and girls, aged 11 and 12, are taught how to give and receive a body check. At least, they are SUPPOSED to be taught that.

I say for the most part because since the late 1980s, Quebec has disallowed checking in peewee hockey, starting it in bantam, where the kids are 13 and 14.

Earlier this month, Hockey Alberta followed that lead, and announced there will be no body checking in peewee beginning next season. (I have no idea if Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador is thinking about moving in this direction yet. I’m sure it will be a topic at the annual general meeting next month in Gander.)

Since I’ve heard the news, I’ve struggled with the decision. I don’t know whether I agree or disagree with the move. I certainly understand the need for safety in the game, and the numbers arguing against checking are hard to dispute. According to a story on CBC.ca’s Calgary website, Hockey Alberta claims "eliminating body checking at the peewee level will eliminate 400 concussions and more than 1,000 injuries" each year!

Staggering numbers.

Teaching a skill properly

But what people fail to recognize is that checking is a skill, just like skating, shooting and passing.  If it’s taught the proper way — the same way shooting as a skill is taught to all young players — then it gets used the proper way.

At every coaching clinic I’ve attended, there’s one answer for why you check someone in a hockey game: to remove him from the puck. (I’ll use 'him' in these instances, because girls’ hockey has body contact, but no checking. I’ll get back to that!)

You shouldn’t be out there looking for that crushing hit. We hope you’re not out there looking to hurt someone. The purpose of playing is to have fun, and try to win. You do that by scoring the most goals, and to do that, you need the puck.

My son has already gone through peewee hockey, and is now playing in the midget division. A defenceman, he used bodychecking to his advantage when it became part of the game.

Prior to that, he was left chasing a forward who skated by or deked him. Once checking was permitted, he could focus on the forward’s chest and knock him off the puck, no matter what move he tried.

And a massive hit wasn’t necessary. Just enough of a nudge to knock him off stride freed him of the puck, and allowed my son’s team to gain possession. Sure there were times when hard hits happened, both by him and to him.

Wrong expectations, big differences

My experience has taught me that when the first-year kids are permitted to check, they envision the open-ice hits that leave a stadium’s fans gasping. They want to crush someone, often taking themselves out of the play in pursuit of the hit. (Think of Dion Phaneuf or Milan Lucic playing minor hockey.)

Dion Phaneuf's hard-hitting style is popular with younger players. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

And peewee is a time of growth for some kids. Every hockey division is for two ages, 11 and 12 being peewee. There is quite a discrepancy in that 24-month period of growing, and kids are of various sizes. (I remember we played against a peewee who stood six-foot-three!)

Bantam is another two-year period where size matters. Initiating body checking at that level, I think, just delays the concussions from peewee.

So here’s my thought: for a while, I have been a proponent of bringing checking into the game earlier, not later! Teach it at the atom level, where kids are generally the same size — small — and body contact will not have as big an impact. But I’ve moved off that a bit in recent times, and it’s come from watching female hockey.

Lessons from women's hockey

In the women’s game, there is no body checking, but there is body contact. A defenceman can still ride a forward out along the boards, separate her from the puck, where a teammate recovers it. It’s the same skill. It’s the same game, for those taking that argument to nonsensical conclusions.

So I recommend we start teaching body contact to the atom players, or novice, I’m OK with that, too. If not, we teach them to play one style of game for four seasons of no hitting and then say, "the game has changed."

Teach the body contact skills — angling, body positioning, etc. — at an earlier age, even if checking is disallowed. We are still teaching skills, and if we do that for four years before kids are allowed to use it, they will be better prepared no matter what side of the collision they are on.

Then, by the time the player is legally allowed to check another player, the skill is ingrained, and the need to make a TV highlight show and hear the gasps of the crowd have long disappeared.

Is it the right answer? Who knows?

We’re dealing with children here, and every precaution should be taken. But just moving checking to bantam age without addressing the need to hone the skill is not the answer.

Follow Don on Twitter: @PowerPlay27