Joe Provenzano grew up playing youth hockey on the east side of Detroit. Following a stint with Des Moines of the United States Hockey League, Provenzano received a scholarship to the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he spent four seasons.
It wasn’t until he got into coaching youth hockey and conducting clinics that Provenzano realized the importance of proper body-checking and body contact in developing young players.
“When I played, body contact was something you learned through trial and error, like many things in life,” said Provenzano, a USA Hockey coaching education volunteer who has coordinated and presented coaching clinics the past 10 years. “Having confidence as a player with body contact is going to lead to players being able to do things on the ice efficiently and more effectively. It obviously is critical. As coaches, we’ve failed a bit in teaching the fundamentals and confidence at a younger age. When the checking age was moved up, I think in a lot of instances it sort of was out of sight, out of mind for a lot of coaches at the younger levels.”
To tackle this problem, Provenzano began inviting coaches to what he calls a “road show” of body-checking clinics at different associations throughout his district, which covers the east side of metro Detroit. Over the past year, he has conducted about 15 such clinics, educating coaches on the need to emphasize body contact, board awareness, strength on skates, and other important checking techniques they can teach to their younger players.
“When I do my coaching clinics, I put the offer out to the coaches that if anyone’s interested in having me out, I’ll come and I don’t charge anything,” Provenzano explained. “It’s a continuous learning process. If I can help the coaches work with me, and actually do the drills, teach the concepts, and get comfortable in all the fundamental skills, I’ve been able to reach a lot more players.”
Provenzano requires the coaches to actually participate in the process. Each clinic starts with a 45-minute off-ice session, using USA Hockey’s material provided through the Coaching Education Program. Attendees are in full gear, minus the skates, and go through a warmup and basics routine. Next, they put on skates and move to the ice for 50 to 80 minutes, concentrating on board awareness, basic contact skills, and confidence-building. A final session focuses on small-area drills, angling, additional contact, and small-area games to build more confidence.
“Whenever we can get our volunteer coaching education instructors to go out and take USA Hockey’s message and deliver it to as many grassroots associations as possible, it really helps us getting coaches and players to understand what our focus is,” said Bob Mancini, USA Hockey’s American Development Model regional manager for Michigan. “When someone like Joe Provenzano takes it on his own to spread the message and create a delivery mechanism like he has, it’s a home run.”
According to Mancini, it’s important that players know the difference between hitting and checking.
“Years ago, the reason coaches would give for checking was to separate the man from the puck,” Mancini said. “That’s not the way the game is played now. You want to get to the puck first. If you can’t, you want to angle the opponent so you’re not separating from the puck, but you’re winning the puck.”
“The game has gotten so fast,” he explained. “Having the players understand that critical difference that everything they’re doing, the way they control their body, the way they use their stick, and the way they can actually gain possession of the puck translates into a smarter hockey player.”
Up to now, Provenzano’s checking clinics have had a small number of girls participating, mainly with mixed teams. He is working with several associations to hold all-girls body contact clinics in the near future.
“I communicate to my coaches all the time that, at a younger 12U to 14U age levels, it’s just as important for girls to have fundamental body contact, strength-on-skates training,” he said. “It’s a really critical part of the women’s game as they get older. If you watch any high-level female hockey game, you’re going to see really good execution of body contact and essentially winning the puck and [being] able to quickly transition to offense.”
Provenzano is working with Mancini to offer more body-checking clinics around the state of Michigan. He believes if players, coaches and parents continue to be educated on the importance of learning age-appropriate body contact from the earliest stages, players will be safer and more successful on the ice.