Body contact and body checking is a part of hockey. Like any skill, players need to gain comfort and confidence in their ability to take and deliver body contact and body checking.
USA Hockey ADM regional manager and two-time U.S. Olympian Guy Gosselin said the mentality and game has changed in regards to checking in the past few years.
“Back in the old days, a lot of times people would take runs at each other just for the sake of running someone,” Gosselin said. “You try to do something like that in today’s game and it can hurt your team by taking yourself out of the play.”
“We’ve lost that 20-30 years ago there was a football mentality, but now it’s more of a soccer mentality, where we’re going to possess the puck and move the puck efficiently out on the ice.”
Even at the 8U level, hockey is a contact sport. Though body checking isn’t allowed until 14U for boys and not allowed in the girls’ game, body contact happens at all stages of the game.
Body contact for both boys and girls includes incidental contact, bumping along the boards when fighting for a loose puck, and using your body when trying to shield or gain the puck from an opponent.
“We’re trying to possess the puck,” Gosselin said. “A lot of times that possession means you have to use your body and put it in a proper position where you’re stable and prepared for your opponent.”
To progress from body contact to body checking, players need to gain contact confidence. Both boys and girls should gain contact confidence, which begins with their stability on the ice.
“Stability is key. Having that athletic position with your head up, flexion in your ankles, your knees bent, hips down, and chest up, being prepared to take or give a hit,” Gosselin said. “Whether you’re 5-foot-2 and 90 pounds or 6-foot-4 and 230, you need to have that proper positioning.”
Gosselin said that coaches should begin “close and slow” when teaching technical aspects of contact. It can begin with angling and shadowing drills at 10U and progress to rubbing out at 12U.
“Starting close and slow at 10U and teaching stick on puck,” Gosselin said. “Mix in angling and mirroring type drills where the kids start to get their timing down in the angling.”
Gosselin said players can take away the puck without throwing a body check, by using body contact and taking the proper angle away from an opponent.
“We say stick on puck and hips through hands, especially along the boards where you can take the puck away and just control it,” Gosselin said. “We talk about using your stick wisely and using vision and awareness where gap control comes into play where you need to be up in the play and have the same amount of speed as [your opponent] so you’re not lunging.”
Contact in Sneakers
Contact comfort can be promoted off the ice, where players are more stable in their street shoes. Close and slow techniques can be taught while players are in full gear and sneakers.
“The idea is for them to learn, ‘Where am I strong? What position do I need to be in to accept a check or to give one?’ It’s very similar to on-ice, but it’s more of a controlled environment, which is a good thing,” Gosselin said. “If kids do this on a regular basis, they’re going to have some confidence when they hit the ice.”
Once on the ice, coaches can progress close and slow with tripod pushes, shoulder and power bumps, making sure they are done with players in good, stable athletic positioning.
Disguise Contact with Small-Area Games
Hockey thinking has evolved into a game of puck possession. The more you have it, the more likely your team is to succeed. At any age, using small-area games help promote puck possession, protection and body contact.
When players are confined to small areas, they will undoubtedly run into some contact. Putting twists on small-area games at younger levels, like having players turn their sticks over and using a ringette, can promote contact and confidence as they get older.
“Disguise this stuff in your drills,” Gosselin said. “The contact confidence and technical stuff is interesting for a short time out on the ice, but it’s hard to keep their attention for more than 15 minutes with this. Integrate it into your practices and get them moving.”
Player Safety and Normalizing Contact
“Mom and dad talk about it at home, coaches talk about it and your buddies in the locker room, but [contact and checking are] not really that big of a deal,” Gosselin said. “We don’t need the anxiety factor with a lot of this with the kids.”
Practice plans should include teaching how to go into and get the puck out of dangerous areas, like in corners and off the boards.
“Puck retrieval and safety on the boards adds to that confidence,” Gosselin said. “You know, hey, it’s part of the game, you’re going to get bumped and there are ways to protect yourself and certain danger areas that you don’t want to go to and you never want to expose yourself or the puck to a person that’s coming in to body-check you.”
Introducing contact at a younger age will help alleviate fears in both parents and players. Players need to get comfortable with contact, while grasping the reason for it.
“Everyone has to understand the purpose of a body check or even body contact,” Gosselin said. “It’s using your body efficiently to protect the puck or take the puck from your opponent.”