No one is a bigger fan of the physical aspect of hockey than me. We have four children who all played hockey, including three in the NHL. They are all very physical players, but I am proud to say, very clean players
I certainly don’t believe that the USA Hockey rule change proposal to move the age of legal body checking in games to the Bantam level will make our game “soft.” However, I think it will make our game better and ultimately safer by promoting skill development while reducing the risk of injury.
We should remember that there are other equally important parts of this plan, including strict enforcement of existing rules and introduction of a structured coaching curriculum to teach body checking skills in practice at even younger age levels.
We can all agree that “legal” body checking is not the root of all evil. However, scientific research demonstrates a significant increased risk of injuries and concussions in Peewee leagues that allow body checking. Some of the risk can be attributed to giving or receiving a “legal” body check.
However, a larger percentage of the injuries result from dangerous and/or illegal activities that are more prevalent in leagues that permit body checking. This is due to the fact that many of the younger players do not have the physical skills or mental awareness to safely execute body checking at this stage of their development. The result is a loss of body control, unanticipated hits and high-risk collisions that are misconstrued as “checking.” In addition, some players, coaches and parents promote “physical play” that in reality leads to charging, boarding and hits to the head.
Why can’t we just call more penalties?
We can. Strict enforcement of the rules as they are written is part of the solution — but it is not always consistent in youth games with less experienced officials.
Won’t Bantam players have more injuries?
It is possible that delaying body checking until the Bantam level may result in increased injuries, but there is currently no data to substantiate this claim. It is just as likely that the risk of injury will be less for Bantam players. A critical part of the body checking rule change proposal is the introduction of body contact at
younger age levels combined with a structured, progressive curriculum to teach body control, angling, anticipation and body checking.
Research has consistently identified a dramatically lower injury risk in practice; therefore, body checking during drills and scrimmage in practice is encouraged at the Peewee level. These efforts will better prepare players for legal body checking in games when they reach the Bantam level.
Will player development suffer from this rule change?
No, development will be enhanced. Experienced coaches have emphasized the need for skill development as a priority at the Peewee level. Players are often focused on hitting or trying to avoid a hit, but should be concentrating on skill acquisition during this optimal development window. In addition, research seems to indicate that the 11- and 12-year-old brain may not have the cognitive capacity to anticipate being hit. If a player can’t protect himself, he is at an increased risk for a more severe injury when body checking, violent collisions and illegal activities occur. Concussed players may never reach their potential or may even choose to quit playing hockey.
We will not find a true consensus on the ideal age to allow legal body checking in games and will always encounter a wide range of passionate opinions. However, it is my belief that any decision that affects the health and safety of our youth athletes should be based on scientific data and expert opinion. Although more research is needed, we have enough data to act and we need to act now. Delaying this important rule change will only force us to continue down the same path, and many youth players will suffer concussions as a result.
Everyone needs to realize that this is not just about delaying the start of legal body checking until the Bantam level. The proposal is also about skill development, having fun, improved coaching techniques, better officiating, and using the body check for the right reason — to separate the player from the puck, not to inflict harm on himself or his opponent.