First it was Mike Richards (Philadelphia Flyers) taking off David Booth’s (Florida Panthers) head in 2009, then the always dangerous (in a bad way!) Matt Cooke of the Pittsbugh Penguins blatantly throwing his elbow out at Boston Bruin centerman, Marc Savard just last season. Now this year started out with a bang, literally, when the face of the National Hockey League (NHL), Sidney Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion in early January. The actions of players during the NHL playoffs haven’t been any better either. There has already been some disciplinary action for flagrant elbows to the head. People are now wondering if body checking should be banned from the game, well at least at the youth level. Though when comparing the professional game to the youth hockey game, really not sure it’s a total apples to apples judgment.
The NHL is comprised of fully grown men 18 years of age and older. Secondly, and most importantly these players are professionals. The are highly skilled, subject matter experts, or masters of the game. Well at least they are supposed to be. With this said, players of the National Hockey League are rewarded hansomly in monetary compensation for being a connoisseur of the game. In fact the minimum salary in the NHL for the 2010-11 season under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is a mere $500,000. But the differences do not end there. Sure some players just 6-7 years ago were playing PeeWee hockey and now today they make their living in the NHL. Although the intensity and compete level of the game is so much more and with that comes the physicality. They all understand when they step out on that ice, they need to be willing to give and take a check. It’s an integral part of the game and always will be.
Body Checking in Youth Hockey — Yeah or Nay?
Yes some of these young athletes today will be fortunate enough tomorrow to make their means of income playing professional hockey. Yet now some medical experts argue that some of these kids may not make it long enough to achieve their ultimate goal of playing in the NHL if body checking continues at the youth levels. In a recent blog posted by CNN Health’s, Stephanie Smith, one study found that concussions could affect as much as 25% of youth hockey players. According to L. Syd M. Johnson, the author of the concussion analysis, “Subtle cognitive deficits may persist for up to a year in some youths.” The underlying cause of these concussions is bodychecking.
On the flip side of the argument, you have others stating that if bodychecking is taught properly it will not lead to head injury. Recently ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” hosted by Bob Ley, interviewed three former NHLers on the topic of concussions and body checking in youth hockey. The video documentary included Kris King (currently SVP of Hockey Operations for the NHL), Mark Messier (Hall of Famer and Founder of the Messier Project), and Matthew Barnaby (current ESPN Hockey Analyst and youth hockey coach). Both Messier and Barnaby are opposed for good reason to USA Hockey’s Body Checking Rule Change Proposal up for vote this June. They feel by raising the checking age to 13 will limit the time players will have to fully learn and develop proper body checking techniques prior to playing in the junior, college, and pro ranks. Barnaby who coaches in the Buffalo area at the PeeWee level, mentioned that in the years coaching his teams, no player had an occurrence of any head injury. All three former pros simply want to take out the dirty, malicious blind-side hits out of the game.
The Herb Brooks Approach
So what’s the solution? How can we keep the integrity of the game without eliminating an essential element? USA Hockey states it does not want to take away body contact, yet simply delete the “big hit”. Sure you can still have innocent body contact while battling for the puck or angle an opponent off the puck, yet there still seems to be a gray area between what constitutes body contact and body checking.
Not so sure USA Hockey and other hockey governing bodies need to look too far for a possible answer. In the state of Minnesota, where hockey is king, they have instituted the “Fair Play” since 2004 through their Hockey Education Program (HEP). It simply is a format whereby teams receive a point in league standings, whether they win or lose, for keeping under the penalty minute threshold for the game. In this day in age where concussions and head injury are prevalent, it’s not hard to argue the success in its relatively young stage.
As part of a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic for Minnesota Hockey, the hits to the head dropped from 12.4 per 100 youth games in 2004-05 to just 2 per 100 youth games the following season. Also, checking from behind penalties decreased approximately 23 per 100 games in 2004-05 to roughly 8.5 in 2009-10. These types of checks from the behind are considered very dangerous as they can possibly lead to spinal or head injuries.
The program over time has reformed the hockey culture with its fair share of objections. Many in the beginning felt this unconventional, outside-the-box thinking did not have a place in hockey especially since it is a sport known for its toughness and physical nature. Although, it seems to be working as it forces players to play smart and safe hockey. Minnesota Hockey must be doing something right as many players have and continue to build successful careers in the NCAA, Olympics, and in the NHL who grew up in the North Star state.
The Hybrid Hockey Answer
Perhaps there is a blended solution that will implement the “Fair Play” style we see now in Minnesota while not having to eradicate the checking aspect. In order for this to be a successful win-win situation there would need to be five (5) important conditions properly covered: coaching, officiating, accountability, equipment, and playing ability.
First and foremost, the biggest challenge would be for the players to receive proper instruction on all aspects of checking. This means not only the physical side, but also the mental approach to body checking. Personally this past season as a coach, I would teach my Squirt age kids about the dynamics of checking, even though they were not age appropriate. Let these kids know how to approach the puck along the boards, getting that head on a swivel, and knowing the dangers of cutting across ice. Don’t just give a one-time cheat sheet lesson, coach body checking throughout the year and sacrifice the power-play or breakout time every now and then.
Heck, I run my 8-9 year olds through the “Gauntlet”. Line all the kids a few feet apart and about a foot off the boards in a line from goal line extending to the blue line. First kid in line takes the puck and skates along the wall receiving a check from each teammate until he/she finishes through the entire line. The puck carrier is taught to keep head-up, not to stand straight up, control puck, shoulder the check while driving through and keeping feet moving. The other players are taught how to check cleanly with intent to separate man from the puck period, NOT hammer him up into the 20th row! Plus they are given education on keeping hands and elbows down, leading with shoulder while staying low and finishing check. Oh yeah, make sure these kids don’t deliver the “buddy pass” up the middle too.
This is just some type of instruction that needs to be enforced throughout the season from coaches and if they are taught proper techniques from the get-go, we wouldn’t be having as many head and spinal injuries. It’s kind of like the peer pressure of under age drinking in the United States. If alcohol were as common as it is sold in the European McDonald’s, then checking will never be an adjustment either (especially at bantam level-U14) since it has always been taught and been part of the game.
The second aspect needs to make sure officials are trained and that referees are making “the calls”. In my coaching experience at the youth level, there are too many referees that simply are looking to get that cup of java or starting the next game. There are not a lot of officials at the young, amateur levels who really understand the true implications of their “non-calls”. Take the time and make it your priority to help right the ship. Every time a player gets away with a head shot or hit from behind, it reinforces to the affect that getting away with murder is legal.
Yes, it is the ultimate responsibility of the kid and indirectly the coach for the action. Players even at the Mite level understand right from wrong. You would be surprised how intelligent players are at the youth levels. Make the calls now, as the game will thank you for it later.
Third the players, coaches, and officials will need to be held accountable. The “Fair Play” program in Minnesota obviously enforces this to a degree on the positive side. It’s great that a team is rewarded for taking less than 12 minutes in penalties at PeeWees, yet what happens in the instances of a head shot or checking from from behind. The youth schedule is limited in the amount of games in comparison to the NHL, so why not suspend players for the illegal contact. I’m not sure about you, but I guarantee kids on my team do not want to miss a game.
But let’s take it a step further shall we. If the illegal head shots occur repeatedly on a team, then the coach gets suspend as well. Sure my playing days are over, although I still bring some competitive juice to the rink when I am behind the bench. Take a survey, I’m sure coaches around the country like to win and build team success just as much as the next guy. So if a coach isn’t teaching proper body checking techniques then he/she will suffer the consequences too! That goes for the zebras as well. After each game the head coaches should evaluate the refs, especially on “non-calls” for flagrant fouls. If coaches and referees are not following the protocol then their services will no longer be needed. Come on, we live in a high tech world and every team, association, and league today seems to have its own web site so how hard would it be.
The fourth standard would need to utilize technology along the lines of the Messier Project with Cascade Sports. In the same regard as NASCAR developed the “soft wall” to help absorb the impact of a collision while dissipating the force throughout the material. It should be mandatory that players at all levels both youth and pro wear helmets whereby compression is maximized, impact attenuation system with lateral energy displacement, and total material reset. While well-developed helmets is a great advancement, the equipment also needs to be worn properly with the chin strap and chin guard obviously at the youth levels. Not to mention as properly fitted mouth guard as well.
Lastly, the suggestion of body checking is for the competent. It seems many of the injuries occur because certain players do not have a certain skill set yet. Perhaps the body checking at the youth level should be legal at the “elite”, “select”, or travel levels only. If one fails to adequately skate and lacks that certain hockey IQ or hockey sense then it seems the probability of injury will be higher. Therefore, limit the body contact or checking for minds and bodies that are clearly willing and able.
As the research has eluted to, teach and allow the aspects of checking in progression. That way the brain continues to grow from Mite to Midget without the hang up on checking or a hinderance to skill development. Certainly introduce body contact starting at the Mite level with puck protection, bumping, and angling. Then steadily add other body checking techniques into the youth game in Squirt, PeeWee, and Bantam. Kids and parents at the “AAA” and “AA” travel level take the game a bit more serious usually. This is mainly because their skill is more advanced with potential and opportunity. Thus it is these players that not only will be able to comprehend body checking, but also will be the players that will accelerate their careers in the game. This is similar to the enrichment programs in the school systems today. Students in these settings are able to understand and challenge themseleves in advanced classes. Correct me if I am wrong, though I do not believe any school or hockey program would want to prevent the betterment of any student or athlete.
Sometimes in our society we tend to over complicate and over analyze. The approach should be no different then practicing good, common morales we see today in babies to toddlers to adolescents. We don’t start telling our son or daughter at age 13 to say “please, thank you, and good-bye” do we. This type of parenting again is fixture at an early age, thus it becomes second nature — hopefully. Well the body checking, and smart, responsible hockey goes by the same institution. Players from the grass roots that come through this globalized system will play differently with less penalties and risky actions. The game can still be played with a physical nature all the while kids continue to develop skills in skating, stick handling, passing, and shooting. This ideology will make for more hockey plays thereby decreasing the feast or famine body checking attitude.
Following this recipe of appropriate coaching, officiating, accountability on all parties, advanced equipment, and allowance for skilled players to body check should be seamless. When you don’t know any different as you have always been taught and played proper body checking since inception then coaches, players, officials, parents, and fans will soon learn an effective, safe, and rewarding game is being consistently played.
Follow Russ Bitely on Twitter: @russbites