After reading USA Hockey’s press release recapping its Winter Meetings, something caught my eye:
In regard to rule changes, much conversation took place about the proposed modification that would prohibit body checking in games for youth hockey players until they reach the Bantam level (13-14 year-olds). The current rule allows checking in games at the Pee Wee level (11-12 year-olds).
“This is a proposal that has significant support and we look forward to continued dialogue throughout the country on this and all proposed rule changes,” said DeGregorio. “In the end, we need to do what is best for the kids who play the game.”
Delaying body checking has plenty of advantages and disadvantages, as all things do. There are plenty of concerns of having 11- and 12-year-olds banging into each other at a decent rate of speed. Safety is always going to be a big part of the discussion, there’s no secret there, but there is so much more to it.
After the jump, a look at more of the reasoning behind the potential rule change.I posed a question on Twitter regarding this topic and I was pleased to see Matt Cunningham, coordinator of coaching education at USA Hockey, reply with this Tweet:
@Hockey_matt we need to make body contact, angling, contact confidence a core skill taught from the earliest ages
Cunningham also provided this link (a .pdf) that gives us great insight into the debate on body checking. A key point from the info provided in the file:
We do know that physiologically (and most importantly), players at this age (11-12) are in their prime “window of opportunity” to acquire sports skills. The current rules we have in place hinder our children from this acquisition of skills at the highest possible level.
To me, it is far more important for a young hockey player to acquire and develop skills. An extra two years of players working on skill sets as opposed to trying to kill the guys in the other color jerseys will give those young players two extra years to perfect the fundamentals. Fundamentally-sound 13- and 14-year-olds will be able to handle body contact better.
Reading the research, it is really hard to argue with its findings. I know that the detractors will say checking is an integral part of the game and that implementing it in Pee Wee allows players to learn it sooner. I’m sure we’ll also hear plenty say that this is further coddling America’s youth, but when you read through the research, you know that there are legitimate reasons for delaying body checking other than simply protecting our kids.
Keep in mind that this proposed rule would not eliminate body contact. Body checking and body contact are two different things. Allowing body angling and natural body contact allows players to get a feel for contact without a significantly greater risk of injury or intimidation.
Another tweet from Cunningham:
@Hockey_matt …We hope people understand we want an increase in body contact training at younger ages
So it is a little bit of a give and take. While delaying full-contact body checking, USA Hockey would permit and encourage introduction of more body contact/angling at the younger levels. Increasing body contact education at a younger age will help better prepare our young players for when they do make the jump into full contact body checking.
Here’s the last bit of scientific research that really swayed me on this topic:
What also came to light is the fact that cognitively, the 11 year old brain has not fully developed the ability to anticipate well. Anticipation is 50% of a player’s ability to protect himself and avoid heavy contact that leads to these serious injuries.
Why put a player, that is not fully able to protect himself, at risk for the sake of “body checking being part of the game.”
I’d much rather see 11-year-old kids trying to put the puck in the net than trying to put their opponent through the boards or worrying about being put through the boards.
That leads me to another reason to consider delaying full body checking; retention. I’ve actually heard this talked about among a lot of hockey parents I’ve come across over the years.
By introducing checking at age 11, some players just aren’t ready for it and they quit playing. It happens a lot.
I can tell you from personal experience, my first year of playing Pee Wees was an absolute nightmare. I wasn’t ready to hit anybody and I was not even close to ready to be hit. I got walloped on my very first shift as an 11-year-old and, if I didn’t love everything else about the game so much, I think I might have quit right then.
Still, I stuck with it and, as many of my other friends did, just accepted getting hit. Not all 11-year-olds can do that. It is far more likely that a 13-year-old can. The maturity gap between 11 and 13 is fairly large.
Many 13-year-old players are going to have the maturity to, more times than not, make the smart play instead of go for the earth-shattering hit. The research USA Hockey cited showed that many 11-year-olds were going out of their way to make the hit and not even make an attempt to make the “smart” play. Again, its a maturity thing.
Taking away the option of flattening an opponent, our young hockey players can continue to focus on using their skills and their brains to make better plays on the ice. Can’t argue with that logic. (Well I guess you could, and I know some of you will.)
Despite my initial skepticism and perhaps some ignorance, I totally agree with the potential rule change after reading through the logic behind it. I don’t think body checking should stand in the way of skill development, safety and retention.
I know this is a topic that elicits a ton of debate among hockey fans, parents coaches and players, so if you would like to share your thoughts, please do so in the comments here or on the USofH Facebook page.
We will revisit this topic again at some point. Until then, make sure to check out the references provided by USA Hockey’s coaching education department. In debates like these, it is important to be as educated as possible on the facts.