Nate Leaman sees hockey at two pretty major extremes on a regular basis. He’s in his 15th season as a NCAA Division I men’s hockey head coach, having turned Union College into a contender before leaving for Providence College in 2011 – and winning an NCAA title in 2015.
Leaman is also a father to three young kids – ages 7, 5 and 3.
“We’re still in mode of ‘I can’t believe how crazy hockey is,’” Leaman said of his youth hockey parenting experience.
But Leaman recently worked with an age group somewhere in the happy middle of those two extremes when he put on a body-checking clinic for USA Hockey.
Teaching body contact and puck possession at the 12U level, he says, is a great way to build up the proper techniques and skills youth hockey players will need and use once they reach 14U, the first age at which body-checking is allowed. Here are Leaman’s key takeaways:
Angling for a start
When teaching the fundamentals of checking, it starts with taking proper angles.
“I think the angling is the biggest thing,” Leaman said. “Bad checking comes from bad angling, not being under control and not having your feet underneath you.”
So teaching 12U players how to take good angles when pursuing a player to regain possession of the puck – without yet following through on a full body-check – is a good building block.
“When you’re a good angling player, a lot of the contact takes place because you’re on a good angle instead of rushing at someone,” Leaman said. “A lot of the contact comes to you. The biggest thing that coaches can teach is proper alignment and angling.”
Think small to think big
Leaman is also a major proponent of teaching puck protection and related skills in small areas instead of on a full sheet of ice.
“To introduce any skill or technique – stickhandling, whatever it is – you’re best off doing it in small spaces and working out from there,” he said. “Puck protection and checking is the same: Do it in small areas and try to break up the big piece into small parts. Maybe you start with how you angle a guy, what areas to make contact with, going shoulder to shoulder, cutting off their hands and having your feet underneath you.”
Small spaces are a hallmark of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, and the benefits continue as kids climb the age ladder.
“If you’re trying to teach someone to hit or protect the puck the length of the ice, there are going to be a lot of guys out of control. If you pick just a small area, guys are going to be a lot more under control and think more,” Leaman said. “Once they get more comfortable, then maybe work to half a zone where there’s more speed involved and your technique has to better.”
If 12U players are taught the proper principles of angling and how to anticipate body contact, match speeds and cut off an opponent’s ice, they should be in a much better position to follow through once they can start body-checking.
“When you get to 14U, you start to talk about checking technique,” Leaman said. “When guys work on making contact to separate someone from the puck, there’s a whole checking technique – bending knees, making contact with the shoulders and paying attention to where your hands and stick are positioned.”
On the flip side, there is a method to receiving contact and trying to maintain puck possession.
“The biggest thing is making sure you have solid position with lower body with your knees bent, ensuring you are on both your skates,” Leaman said. “Are you shock-absorbing if you know contact is going to be made? Are you making yourself strong?”
It never really ends
Leaman’s children are a long way from learning the finer points of body-checking. The kids he worked with at that USA Hockey clinic, too, have plenty to work on.
But you know what? So do the college players he sees, which underscores just how important and fundamental those skills are.
“I think angling is something everyone can work on, especially at our level,” Leaman said. “That’s one of the things that college players always have to work on when they come back after the summer. A lot of times they’re going straight at people, and that’s not ideal, so the teaching process begins again.”