There’s no denying that hockey is a contact sport at every level and always will be. Even at the younger age groups and no-check leagues, it’s nearly impossible to avoid some kind of physical play.
“When I coach a game, I like there to be a physicality and a heart — being hard to play against — but that doesn't mean blowing guys up,” said Derek Plante, an assistant coach for the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team. “At every point where there's contact, you can be a little bit physical, whether it’s just going through the hands or just forcing an opponent to do things at a higher, faster pace and they want to, to try to create a turnover.”
While body checking is technically defined as separating a player from the puck, it’s really about doing what Plante says: forcing a turnover and gaining possession of the puck.
USA Hockey in 2019 approved the Declaration of Player Safety, Fair Play and Respect that focuses on teaching players how to play with contact at their respective ages. While there was no change in the checking rules, the initiative included proper ways to give and receive checks and other body contact. It also focused on creating a safer and more respectful game overall by eliminating late hits, hits to the head, hits from behind and any other contact used to intimidate or injure another player from the sport.
Name of the Game
Speed and skill are the name of the modern game. That’s the mantra.
“This model is about skill development and puck possession — the way the game is being played today,” said Guy Gosselin, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model and two-time U.S. Olympian from Rochester.
While that model is being embraced more and more, there’s still a culture of contact that needs redefining. USA Hockey says the responsibility to modify that culture falls not just on players but with everyone involved in the game, from coaches to officials to parents to fans to administrators.
“This needs to get reinforced with our coaches and by mom and dad,” Gosselin said, highlighting perhaps the players’ biggest influences.
What It Means to Be Tough
Plante has seen it all, closely following nearly every level of hockey over the years. As a player, he was a standout at Cloquet High School and Minnesota Duluth before embarking on a long professional career that took him around the world and included eight seasons in the National Hockey League.
Admittedly, Plante wasn’t an overly physical player, preferring to go after the puck and get it on his stick. But he wasn’t afraid of making contact when he had and be a little disruptive on defense.
“I’m all about pace and being in someone’s face,” said Plante, who had 248 points in his NHL career and ranks tied for second all-time in scoring at UMD with 219 points. “That’s kind of how I played. I was a good forechecker. I was in your face, but I never hammered people.”
Today, Plante is starting his second stint as an assistant coach at his alma mater, UMD, following five years as a player development coach with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. He also watches his three sons, ages 16, 14 and 12, play regularly.
That’s a lot of levels, each with its own kind of contact.
Plante says there are many ways to play the right way within the changing landscape of the game, but, in his opinion, it all starts with work ethic.
“If I’m coaching a team, the two biggest things are: Are you going to work your butt off? And, are you going to be unselfish?” he said. “That means you're going to work on passing and you're going to backcheck your butt off.”
“Nothing should be easy, right? And if you're a team that's willing to outwork the other team most nights, you're going to have a legitimate chance. And then hopefully, you have enough guys in there that can score, too.”
But then the responsibility falls on the coaches to teach the proper ways to play with contact, recognizing that their rosters include players of differing skill sets, abilities and ways of getting from Point A to Point B. No easy task.
“Repetition and correction, and you’re going to get better habits,” Plante said. “And the earlier you start that, the better.”
Gosselin said bumping is introduced at the 8 & Under level, angling at 10U and full contact in practice at 12U before phasing body checking into actual competition at the 14U boys level. Skating, angling, stick checking and positioning are just as much a part of defensive tactics — at all levels — as body contact.
And those tactics, Plante said, are skills to be honed, just like stickhandling.
“We did a good angling drill the other day, and it was amazing how much hockey sense that takes and how every kid has to do it differently,” he said. “They just need to practice it because every kid skates differently and is different.”
“They're trying to accomplish the same thing, but they're going to have do it differently. So how do you coach that?”
Getting families to buy in to the right way to play can go a long way, too, Plante said. He compared two extremes: parents who brush off their child’s reckless play by saying, “Well, that’s hockey,” with those who cry foul when even the slightest contact is made with their young player.
In both instances, character and respect — of coaches, opponents, officials and the game itself — are key.
“When I'm at a game (as a recruiter) I look for that,” he said, “like, ‘I got knocked on my butt. Now what do I do? Do I get up and go whack the guy or run around all over the rink trying to get them back? Or am I just going to go out on the next shift and be better?’ For me, that's character.”