When I was a young player, the hitting element of the game was more "seek and destroy." Checking was meant to intimidate the other team so they wouldn't want to go into the corners and battle for pucks. Players in those days probably had many undiagnosed concussions as the result of aggressive hits that were seen as fleeting conditions ... and the phrase "got your bell rung" was often heard on the bench.
Players who "got their bell rung" would typically sit a shift or two and hop right back onto the ice.
Parent concern has driven many players away from contact sports over the last decade; hence sports leagues are adapting. Today, with the advent of better detection and understanding, the hockey community, much like the football community, understands these hits can take their physical toll over time. Leagues are addressing those concerns with improved coaching and body contact techniques. Equipment manufacturers are pouring more money into research and development aimed at creating helmets better at absorbing and diverting the energy from rotational force hits, the biggest reason for concussions. In our recent post entitled, What helmet is right for your player we look at the recent Virginia Tech hockey helmet ratings. It's an informative read when you have a moment, particularly if you're in the market for a new helmet.
Additionally, there has been a cultural shift in the hockey community over the last ten years from "seek and destroy" to "bump and steal." Players are so skilled nowadays, and the best teams are the teams that can possess the puck hence the emphasis has shifted to using body contact to win back the pucks versus blowing someone up. While old-school hockey purists may miss the jarring hits of yesteryear, there is still plenty of clean, hard-hitting contact in the sport, players are getting smarter about how and when to deploy a hit with the main purpose of gaining the puck back.
Below we take a look at some steps outlined by USA Hockey's Ken Klee on taking body contact more effectively.
1. Change the Big-Hit Mentality
Hard hits are often cheered at the college and pro levels. Glass-shattering checks can bring a crowd to its feet. But that’s not the purpose of body contact and body-checking.
“Unfortunately, as players get older, they think of checking as trying to wreck and smash other kids, but that’s not it,” said Klee. “Checking is the same as body contact when done properly. It’s trying to knock the other player off the puck, so you can get the puck, not trying to knock the other player down, so you feel better about yourself.”
Introduce your players to it with body-contact drills. Incorporate drills that include physical contact while trying to gain possession of the puck. Players will learn the physical part of the game naturally through these activities.
2. To Get the Puck – and Keep It
Puck possession is the name of the game. “The team that has the puck the most wins,” says Klee. “Bottom line.”
One way to gain puck possession is through proper body contact and body-checking. Separate the player from the puck. Klee uses steering and angling drills during practice. By emphasizing stick-on-puck as the initial point of contact, a defensive player will inherently be in better position to angle the opponent while taking away time and space.
While the body contact skills progression begins at the 8U level, it should be honed at all levels. Small-area games and station-based practices provide a safe environment for players to become comfortable making contact and positioning themselves correctly.
“One of the things I do in every practice is have (players) do angle drills,” Klee said. “I have them angle themselves to protect the puck 2-on-2. They start putting their body between the player and the puck by rubbing them out.”
Once you get the puck, you have to protect it. One way to protect the puck is to learn how to absorb and receive body contact and body-checking properly.
“You need an awareness of how to put your body between the opponent and the puck,” added Klee. “It’s a great way to maintain puck possession and play the game.”
3. Preventing Injury and Staying Out of the Box
Developing contact confidence, respect for the opponent, and game rules are critical to preventing injury. Players need to know they must keep their hands and elbows down to avoid head contact. They cannot take runs at opposing players and should be cognizant of the distance traveled when engaging an opponent. They cannot leave their feet or be hit from behind.
Kids should start learning and practicing the proper form at the youngest ages to avoid both injury and penalties.
4. Board Battles
A large portion of hockey happens in the corners and along the boards. Those puck battles require a physical presence.
“The reason you go in for a check along the boards is to regain puck possession,” said Klee. “It’s the number-one reason we even check in hockey – for puck possession.”
Reiterate the use of body positioning and angles, along with balance. Players who have a strong presence in the corners tend to put their team in a good position to gain puck possession and ultimately score goals.
5. It’s Key to Overall Development
When USA Hockey removed body-checking from 12U hockey games, it wasn’t meant to remove the teaching of body contact techniques. Teaching proper body contact and body-checking at every level of development is necessary to prepare players for higher levels of hockey.
It’s a skill they need to succeed.
“I use it in coaching at 8U all the way up to college players and pros,” said Klee. “It’s a skill players need to keep practicing just like they need to practice skating, shooting, and passing. It’s (a skill) that needs continued work throughout an entire hockey career.”
Please take a look at this pdf and share it with your player or player's coach, as it has a lot of useful pointers, visuals, and drills on making and receiving proper body contact.
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