For many hockey fans, big hits are one of the most exciting parts of the game. Some players feel the same way. It’s almost like a desire for collisions is a part of human nature. Yet, it is important to remember at the youth levels that proper body checking isn’t an instinctive skill.
“It’s like passing,” says Wes Bolin, Minnesota Hockey’s ADM Coordinator. “You don’t just teach passing one day and then, your done teaching passing. You continue to teach it. You continue to try and improve it. Checking and contact should be taught the same way any other skill is taught. “
In order for hockey players to utilize checking safely and effectively, they should be taught according to a progression that starts shortly after hitting the ice.
The first step in developing checking skills begins with generating contact confidence at a young age.
“Put Mites in situations where contact might occur,” says Bolin, who is also the boys’ head hockey coach at Woodbury High School. “You put them in situations where contact might occur so they get used to a little bit of bumping and banging as they compete for pucks in small game situations.”
By introducing the youngest ages to body contact, they start learning how to control their body in those situations. Gradually, players gain an understanding and confidence in their ability to maintain their balance while running into other players.
The lower speeds seen at the Mite level also reduces the potential for injury when players are first learning these basic skills. However, that doesn’t mean safety isn’t a concern.
“The emphasis on safety comes as soon as you start talking about contact,” says Bolin. “Talk about equipment safety, proper helmet fit, proper facemask fit with the chin cup and use of a mouthguard.”
Introduction to Body Contact
Once players reach the Squirt level, the focus becomes the introduction to body contact and contact competition, similar to what coaches teach girls at the 10U, 12U and 14U levels.
“Contact competition situations are just fun little one-on-one games where they’re competing against each other and they’re having some contact, but it’s not really a full blown one-on-one open ice type battle,” says Bolin.
Kids at this age level also start gaining the ability to understand additional aspects of safety. This enables coaches to start explaining the reasoning behind those concepts.
“You [should] talk about a lot of stability things – proper use of their edges, use of their skates if they’re going into the boards,” says Bolin. “All of those are things you work with kids without necessarily mentioning it as a Mite, but you talk about it as a Squirt because they can understand the seriousness of injury at that point.”
“Try to put a little bit of the responsibility on the player going into the boards for his or her own safety. Be aware of where they are on the ice with respect to the play, with respect to the boards and understand that at a body’s length away from the boards – I call it ‘No Man’s Land’ – you’re in a vulnerable position.”
In addition to continuing to build players’ skills in contact situations, angling should also be introduced.
“A lot of that is just stick position and body position relative to the player you are coming into contact with,” says Bolin. “You want to remain in your hockey stance. Try to get [your] hips through [your opponent’s] hands, shoulder in front of shoulder and stay within the hockey stance.
Teaching Body Checking
A couple of years ago, when checking was removed from Peewees, there was some debate among coaches as to which level body checking should be taught at.
“The initial reaction was, ‘Oh there’s no checking in Peewee level, therefore, we’re not going to teach checking at the Peewee level’,” says Bolin. “Now, we’re teaching checking at the Peewee level, and at the Bantam level, were continuing to teach and improve our checking.”
“If we use that progression, that kind of a model, kids are going to be prepared for contact when they get to contact. They are going to be prepared for checking when they get to checking in practices and then allowing it in a game when they’re Bantams.”
The most important lesson for players to remember once they get to the age levels where checking is taught and allowed in games is that the goal of body checking is to separate the opponent from the puck and regain possession.
“We try to get players to stay within their hockey stance,” says Bolin. “A lot of times at the Bantam and High School level when they go out of their stance to try and make contact they’re actually trying to hurt somebody. Any time you are trying to hurt somebody, you’re probably going to get a major penalty. That’s even at the highest levels of the game.”
If players stay within their stance like they are supposed to, their hips and shoulders become the primary points of contact rather than the elbow, arm or hands. When coupled with avoiding the back, head, or knees of an opponent, this technique significantly decreases the likelihood of injury for both players without reducing effectiveness.
Integrating Checking Drills Into Practice
One of the more common reasons coaches avoid teaching checking skills is the same reason many avoid helping goalies: they aren’t comfortable teaching it because they were never taught themselves. The good news is Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey provide several tools for coaches to solve that problem.
“USA Hockey website and USA Mobile app has some great resources for teaching contact and checking,” says Bolin. “Obviously, associations can work with Minnesota Hockey and our ADM team will come out and put on a checking clinic as well. It’s just a matter of associations and coaches looking for those resources.“
Once coaches overcome that initial unease, the next step is to start incorporating checking drills and skills into practice. How often should they be included in practice though?
“Integrate [checking] into practice throughout the season,” says Bolin. “I think it is more effective that way than if you have a single day where you just teach checking or you just teach contact.”
“I would say in every Mite practice there should probably be one station where there is some competition where body contact might occur. At the Squirt level, it’s probably the same kind of thing. [In Peewees & Bantams] you should have those as a part of a station once every other week as a part of your regular skills.”
By consistently teaching and developing players’ contact and checking skills, they will be more effective in actual games – just like how emphasizing passing, shooting and net front presence in practice generates more chances.