Coaches know that skill development is paramount. Aside from skating, stickhandling, passing and shooting, there is an often-overlooked skill that gets ignored, pushed to the side and kicked down the road.
Body contact is a skill that can and must be taught at all levels, from 8U on up. Coaches failing to do so are failing their players. Teaching body contact the right way is not only essential to the safety of our sport, but it also plays a crucial role in puck possession.
Even with safety measures in place and improved protective gear, hockey is a contact sport. For us to achieve greater safety for young players, we must begin to teach players at every level – beginning from 8U all the way up to 18U and beyond – to understand body contact.
Body contact has to follow a progression.
“Every level you're working on the principles,” said Christian Koelling, Minnesota Hockey District Coach-in-Chief.
Here’s how coaches can get players comfortable with contact.
As players develop and become more agile on their edges, they gain self-assurance in their skating and what they can do on the ice. The same goes for contact at an early age.
“Developing contact confidence starts by making sure players are comfortable being in close quarters with an opponent,” Koelling said.
Small-area games are an excellent way to get youngsters comfortable with contact. The chaos in small areas inevitably lead to bumping at 6U/8U, which will give kids the tools, awareness and experience to grow and develop safely.
Koelling said early check marks for players gaining contact confidence include: the ability to handle some contact, maintaining strength on their feet and making sure players are not putting themselves in a dangerous position.
“It can be developed starting at 8U just by putting players in small areas and small-area games,” Koelling said. “They're developing those things and then as they get older at 10U you may become more deliberate. Once you get into 12U is when you're really focusing more on body contact, where you may have full contact drills and full contact components of practice, because you're preparing players for 14U and beyond.”
As players are gaining contact confidence, coaches can teach how to properly absorb contact at slower speeds in controlled environments. By giving players less room, they are not able to take full-speed runs at their teammates.
“We learned how to check by, ‘Skate up the boards with the puck and you try to go and just hit this guy,’” Koelling said. “I don't know how valuable that was as far as teaching. It certainly wasn't valuable to the guy who was skating up the boards and just a lame duck. Slow it down so everyone's comfortable and no one is afraid of getting hit.”
Injuries in hockey happen from time to time, but it is necessary for coaches to prepare their players so that they aren’t afraid of contact, thus putting themselves in dangerous positions.
“Danger in checking can occur because players do not have contact confidence,” Koelling said. “When they're in a situation where they're going to absorb a hit at a young level they do exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. They stand straight or put themselves in a bad position trying to avoid the hit altogether whereas they need to put themselves in a position to absorb or lean in.”
Slowing drills down also provides the opportunity for coaches to teach the skills behind body contact, beginning the process with angling and stick checks, having good body position to receive contact and eventually initiating contact.
At these early stages of development, when players are getting more comfortable with their bodies and movement, contact confidence can be worked on extensively off-ice. In tennis shoes, players are more surefooted and can be introduced to contact at slower speeds.
“There are different balance drills, drills with manual pressure from someone else whether it be pushing on you in a direction and forcing you to maintain your knee bend and strong hockey position,” Koelling said. “There's certainly a lot of resources at usahockey.com/coaches and through the USA Hockey Mobile Coach app.”
Players who are at the 12U or 14U levels can learn the basics of body checking off ice in full gear, where risk of injury is reduced.
Player safety is a concern at the youth level but goes all the way up to the National Hockey League. The NHL has legislated hits to the head out of hockey and levied fines and suspensions for offending players.
“The late hits, the follow-through high hits are not being allowed anymore,” Koelling said. “Using body contact and using checking for intimidation is something you don't see as much at the higher levels anymore and it's something that we hoped is not seen at all at younger levels.”
The end goal of body contact and checking is for a player or team to get the puck back. Less and less are we seeing the big runs or blow-up hits of old-school hockey.
“Part of it is that it's just not good hockey anymore,” Koelling said. “Players are too skilled. You can't play like that – you take yourself out of position and you’ll get penalized. If you start running around like that, any good team will capitalize on the scoreboard.”
The game has never been more skilled, faster or more exciting. Body contact and checking has a place in the game, but youngsters should not be deterred from joining or quitting the sport because of it.
“It's been for the better. It's made the game faster,” Koelling said. “Checking is part of hockey and that's certainly part of the game and an important part of the game, but it's not meant to be something where we have players getting injured. Especially when it comes to kids.”