Before examining and understanding USA Hockey’s Declaration of Player Safety, Fair Play and Respect that was passed over the summer you have to keep in mind one thing, Guy Gosselin says:
“There’s been no change to the rules.”
When it comes to body checking and body contact, the rules of the game are the same as they’ve been for awhile.
The culture around contact, however, is what’s being changed.
“When kids get to a certain age they ask, ‘Can we hit?’” said Gosselin, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model. “When that happens, the focus is on running around and banging players. This model is about skill development and puck possession — the way the game is being played today.”
‘The Game Is Evolving’
Gosselin said that teaching players at all levels about contact, including how to properly give a check as well as how to properly receive one makes for a safer and more respectful game.
The idea of “finishing a check” along the boards is no more. Same goes for blowing someone up with a vicious, open-ice hit.
The point of body checking isn’t to punish or intimidate opponents. And although it’s technically defined as separating the player from the puck, it’s not necessarily about that, either. It’s about gaining possession of the puck.
“Back in the day, coaches might say, ‘If you don’t finish your check you’re going to be riding the pine,’” Gosselin said. “Today, you have to have the mindset that it’s not about being tough. It’s about how the game is evolving.”
Safety is of the utmost importance, and USA Hockey is committed to eliminating hits to the head, hits from behind and late hits from the game.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for big, strong, aggressive players, Gosselin said, citing 6’3” Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and 6’2” Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres as examples of young American-born-and-trained stars who use their size and skill in the right way. But there’s room for 5’9”, stable-skating speedsters such as Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, too.
“We have a responsibility to keep players safe,” Gosselin said. “That comes from everybody — all adults involved. We’re really passionate about that. … We want kids to be comfortable on the ice.”
It Starts at 8U
One misconception about the rules of body contact is that it’s limited to older levels of boys hockey only. But no body checking at the younger levels doesn’t mean “no-touch hockey,” Gosselin stressed. “A lot has been misunderstood.”
Gosselin said bumping is introduced at the 8U level, angling at 10U and full contact in practice at 12U before phasing body checking into actual competition at the 14U level.
USA Hockey defines body contact as “an individual defensive tactic designed to legally block or impede the progress of an offensive puck carrier” and can be done “through skating, angling and positioning” with contact occurring only “during the normal process of playing the puck.” This is allowed at all levels.
Body checking, meanwhile, is defined as “an individual defensive tactic designed to legally separate the puck carrier from the puck” by “applying physical extension of the body toward the puck carrier” with the “hip or body from the front, diagonally from the front or straight from the side.” The guidelines go on to say a “legitimate body check” can only be done with the trunk of the body — the hips and shoulders — and contact must take place above the puck carrier’s knees and below his neck. Unnecessarily rough checks will be penalized.
There is a progression on how checking is introduced to the game, starting with talking to players (and coaches) about attitude, ethics and respect. From there, players are taught:
• Positioning and angling — cutting down an opponent’s time and space.
• Stick checking — poking and sweeping the puck away or lifting an opponent’s stick.
• Body contact — blocking the puck carrier’s path or skating lane.
• Body checking — giving and (perhaps more importantly) receiving checks.
All together, this means stressing proper vision one the ice, knowing what kind of time and space you have when you go to retrieve a puck but also understanding angles and gaps when you’re defending or recognizing when an opponent might be in a vulnerable or defenseless position. It means teaching stability, being in the so-called athletic position — knees bent, hips down, chest up, head up — and using your core strength to your advantage. It means possessing pucks and protecting pucks.
“We want kids to possess the puck and play with speed under pressure,” Gosselin said. “Everybody needs this. We can’t get caught up in the body check.”
Mike Hastings, head coach of the Minnesota State University men’s team, agrees.
“Absorb it and then spin off it, utilize someone’s energy and aggression and go in the other direction,” he said.
Hastings said he supports the USA Hockey declaration “100 percent.” It’s how he wants his players to play the game.
“Angling, recovery, understanding positions … if you’re really good at (those things) you can take away time and space and options,” said Hastings, who was the head coach of the U.S. national team that took silver at last January’s World Junior Championship. “You can be in a position to go from defense to offense a lot quicker.”
Hastings stresses to his players the importance of playing angles and keeping sticks on the ice. He’s glad to see there’s an emphasis on teaching those skills to younger players and the importance of that continuing even once body checking is introduced to the game.
“Your ability to angle people in today’s game is important because you’re no longer able to use your hands and stick above the shin pads,” Hastings said. “As a group, if we can get all five guys in that mindset, they can get to playing fast.”
The game will still be physical, of course. There will be hits. Making sure they’re legal, safe and are done with the purpose of possessing the puck is the key. Everyone involved in the game can help make sure that’s the case.
“This needs to get reinforced with our coaches and by mom and dad,” Gosselin said.