In hockey, body contact is as inevitable as skating, passing and shooting. Whether it’s intentional or not, an adult league, women’s game, 8U, 10U or the NHL, there are varying degrees of body contact at every age and skill level.
With that mindset, coaches at all age levels should introduce and develop their players to the concept of body contact, whether they are in a division that allows body-checking or not.
The game has changed
USA Hockey American Development Model regional manager Guy Gosselin said the game has changed in the last 20 years. At the highest level, the focus is more on puck possession and skill than intimidation. Therefore, the concepts of body-checking and body contact have also changed.
“The definition of body-checking was to remove an opponent from the puck, not remove him from consciousness,” Gosselin said. “It’s actually evolved even more to using your body efficiently to possess the puck and to remove the puck effectively from your opponent. We need to start that at the younger ages, because that’s how the game is played today.”
Gosselin said coaches, from 8U on up, need to begin introducing the concepts of body contact to their players, so that when they get to higher levels, they’re equipped to succeed.
“We want to develop more confident and capable players by teaching them to use their bodies effectively out on the ice,” Gosselin said. “Confidence and stability equals performance.”
Body contact concepts need to be introduced by coaches in the girls/women’s game too. Look no further than the thrilling women’s Team USA gold-medal victory in the Olympics over Canada. There was no shortage of physical play amongst the rivals.
“That’s no-check, but there’s body contact all over the place,” Gosselin said. “They do a nice job of angling and taking the puck away from the opponent without blasting them.”
At each age group and gender, Gosselin said that concepts should be introduced so that players become accustomed to contact and using their bodies comfortably out on the ice.
8U: Introduction through small-area games
Gosselin said that small-area games are an ideal way to introduce body contact. There’s less room to maneuver and incidental contact is inevitable at this age.
At 8U, coaches should begin addressing the physical nature of the sport and also teach what is acceptable and what is not.
“We’re talking about respect, safety, cautionary areas and not to hit from behind and sportsmanship and everything that goes along with that,” Gosselin said. “Understand that it’s OK to bump and it’s going to happen out there, and that it will help with being stable out on the ice. Just giving them that mentality that this is how the game is played.”
10U: Angling and spacing
At 10U, coaches can implement the idea of angling, taking away space, gap control on rushes and proper spacing. Gosselin said drills where players track and mirror the puck-handler are good for teaching angling.
At the younger ages, Gosselin said coaches, “Need to disguise body contact into drills and blend it with other facets of the game. If you’re doing some angling, might want to teach how to steer and take away the middle and finish with a rub out.”
12U: Introduction to body-checking
At 12U, coaches can begin to teach proper technique, and apply, full checking into certain drills into practice.
“We can do technical drills where we talk about positioning and proper body posture: flexion in your ankles your knees down, chest up and head up,” Gosselin said.
Depending on your team’s skill and ability, proper checking techniques can be introduced off-ice in full gear, before or after practice.
“As a coach, you need to do what I call, ‘address the stress’ and let them know it’s part of the game and approach it as a matter-of-fact part of the game rather than heightening it,” Gosselin said.
Close and slow
“Start them off close and slow and start working on technique in a structured environment,” Gosselin said. “Read the body language, especially when they hit the 12U age to 14U. There might be some anxiety and they might think it’s body-checking time. But it’s not that big of a jump if you use the correct progression.”
Body contact for offense
It’s not all about using contact to take the puck away from your opponent. Players can use their bodies to protect the puck. Bracing for impact and having strong balance are key in puck protection. These concepts can be taught at any age. Gosselin gives the example of second-year NHLer and Scottsdale, Arizona, native Auston Matthews, as a player who uses his body to create offensive chances.
“You take a guy like Auston Matthews,” Gosselin said. “He doesn’t run all over the ice laying big hits, but he’s a very tough, strong and effective hockey player and uses his size and body to create offensive chances.”