Parents watch anxiously from the cold bleachers of the hockey rink as two players fight for the puck.
Grainger gains control for a few seconds. Then, Simmons body checks him. Grainger goes down hard. A crescendo of opposing cheers rattles the iron rafters.
Grainger’s mom watches in dismay as the medics help her son off the ice. It was a hard hit. She worries about her son’s injuries as she steps down the bleachers on her way to the locker room.
Hockey, by design, is a physical sport. With the recent concerns about concussions and other serious injuries, national hockey associations in Canada and the United States have taken a proactive step to ban body checking for younger players.
Some parents embrace the body-check ban; others don’t. Both camps cite the risk of injury as a reason for their position…And research shows both sides of the debate may have valid points.
What is body checking?
Body checking is a legal, defensive move to gain control of the puck during a hockey game.
During a body check, the opposing player uses the deliberate, physical force of his torso, hips and shoulders to stop or block another player.
The force exerted during a body check can slam a player into the wall or cause a nasty fall on the ice.
When is body checking allowed?
Currently, the USA Hockey Association’s rules state that players under the age of 12 are not allowed to body check when playing in recognized leagues. USA Hockey has definitive rules for body checking. According to Rule 604 (a):
Body checking is prohibited in the 12 & under youth age classification and below, and all Girls’ / Women’s age classifications. These levels would be considered the Body Contact Category of play. Body checking is also prohibited in all non-check adult classifications. A local governing body may prohibit body checking in any classification.
The rule goes on to say, players who body check in any of the prohibited classifications will receive significant penalties. Players who injure other players while using illegal body checks during body-contact classified games will receive misconduct penalties.
But, the rules also create some confusion. While body checking is illegal in some categories, body contact is allowed and is not penalized in any category.
What’s the difference between body checking and body contact?
Hockey is physical. Contact occurs between players as they scramble to cover the puck; it’s the nature of the game.
But there is a difference between body contact and body checking. The difference is “deliberate.”
If the body contact and force are not intentional but result from regular, active play, the move is not considered illegal.
Body checking increases the risk of injury.
An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) makes the case for the body-checking ban. The article states that 11- and 12-year-old players who play on teams where body checking is allowed are three times more likely to sustain a concussion, severe injury or severe concussion than players on teams where body checking is not permitted.
Many parents of Pee Wee and Squirt players are relieved that body checking is no longer allowed on the ice.
But others, have concerns.
The body checking ban causes controversy.
Some parents worry that not teaching and training players proper body checking technique in the Mite (under 8 years old), Squirt (under 10 years old), and Pee Wee (under 12 years old) categories increases the risk of injury as these children move into the Bantam category.
Since body checking is allowed at the Bantam level (13- to 14-year-olds) and older categories, parents worry that players will not be prepared or trained to play at a higher-contact level.
Without a transitional training program, those parents could be right.
In an article published on the USA Hockey’s American Development Model website, Nate Leeman, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) coach and the father of three young hockey players, believes teaching the principals of proper body-checking angles should be taught to players 2 years before they enter the Bantam category.
Leeman also points out proper body-checking technique is just one side of the equation. On the other of the stick, players need to know how to position themselves to absorb the impact of a body check without injury.
He sees the need for players at all levels to develop the fundamental skills to play well. Leeman suggests breaking down the individual movements of techniques, like body checking, and practicing them on a smaller scale. This type of instruction prepares players at all levels to perform well on the ice.
With the fundamental skills and muscle memory in place, learning a new skill is easier and safer. Players who practice and perfect their skills also may be in a better position to avoid injury.
As young players transition from one age category to another, they need to be prepared to handle the new skills, new rules and a new environment.
All physical sports put athletes at risk for some type injury. And hockey is no exception.
The debate will continue. Coaches and parents will continue to discuss the best way to keep hockey players safe as they play an intensely physical game. Individual leagues will decide the best way to transition boys from the Pee Wee leagues into body-checking categories.
A commitment to practicing proper technique, wearing protective gear and conditioning will help these young men minimize their risk of injury.
For more information or to find a hockey league near you, visit USA Hockey.com.