Today many levels of hockey are dealing with a raising problem. This is especially evident in the professional ranks of the NHL, AHL, and ECHL as well as other high level hockey like major juniors (CHL) in Canada and the college game (NCAA) in the United States. The problem is so significant the National Hockey League instituted Rule 48 in March 2010, which puts a ban on “a lateral or blind-side hit”. There is a tremendous amount of discussion throughout the hockey world about the number of concussions due to players checking the opposing player directly to the head or from the back or blind side.
Sidney Crosby, the face of the NHL, is currently on the sidelines as he is suffering from a couple of hits he took to the melon earlier this month. Now the superstar is voicing his concern. The 30 team league general managers have also gathered in the past to discuss. We are now seeing suspensions and further more on the unfortunate side, players being injured and/or suffering career threatening damage.
Now these are players that are supposed to be the best in the world. The players today in the NHL are made up not only from North America, but also stem from the European countries and beyond. The caliber of play is extremely high and intense at the same time. So why is it if the best players in the world, who possess such awesome skill, are now banging heads?
Well this is the big debate and everything has been thrown at the chalk board. One theory believes the “instigation rule” is the cause. Many players, coaches, and GMs feel that it makes a player think twice about dropping the gloves and protecting their superstars. Others feel the game is just simply way to quick and extreme in the modern era. Players and the pace are far faster than decades ago. Although there are also some rumblings from players stating that they do not know or fully comprehend the rule.
Now it is this declaration that should make us all put our thinking caps on. If we truly peel back the layers of the onion a bit more and research why this gradual increase in illegal body checks from players to the head we may in fact find a correlation.
Are kids at the youth level being taught properly on all aspects of checking?
When your son straps on the skates at the pee-wee level, is the coach more interested in throwing the pucks on the ice to go over the power play or does he actually take the time to instruct proper body checking? Today there is a lack of coaches volunteering their time. With that said it is unknown if many coaches today getting behind the benches truly understand all aspects of the game. This is simply because they either never played or have very limited competitive playing days under their belt. As far as USA Hockey is concerned, you can simply sit in a classroom for 8 hours on a Saturday and obtain your Level 3 coaching certificate to coach at the pee-wee level (under age 12) where checking is legal. Is there a problem here and perhaps in other hockey governing bodies? Believe me, I give tons of credit to the dad that gives to the game and wants to help kids have the opportunity to play this great game. Although I do not feel it is beneficial to the kids in the long run for coaches teaching with little hockey experience.
I personally have never wrestled in my life, so me telling a kid how to properly begin a match on the mat is both an embarrassment to me and eventually for the kid. So that’s why if my kid wanted to wrestle, I would have the best fanny cushion money could buy. Hockey is no different and perhaps even more complicated because it is a team sport that is played on ice with skates, a stick, other equipment with full contact.
Personally, I am not entirely convinced kids in youth programs are being properly coached on the fundamentals of hockey. We are talking skating, passing, stick handling, and shooting. So why would a coach take the extra time and explain the proper ways to body check at the young and or older ages. After all, we are playing to win right!!! That means practicing the power play, the break-outs, neutral zone trap, the 1-2-2, the 2-1-2, or the 411 (ha, ha!). Pucks, pucks, pucks!!!
Too many times as coaches we assume too much about the skills and game knowledge of the players. Individual development is a tough task as teams are allotted only 50 minutes of practice time and probably 80% – 90% of those are half-ice anyway at the youth level, at two times a week. Ice times are tough to come by and expensive as well. So that’s why mom and dad need to cough up extra cash for private lessons if they want their kid to skate like Patrick Kane, dangle like Pavel Datsyuk, make precision passes like Daniel Sedin, and one-time like Steven Stamkos. When the kid steps onto the ice, he should already know about the basics skills and that includes body checking.
Wrong…coaches need to do a better job in teaching hockey from A to Z. Emphasis on individual skill development in my opinion has decreased overall. A lot of coaches are incorporating heavy game strategies at such an early age. Therefore, if nobody is conducting one-on-one instruction with players from an early age on the aspects of hip checks, poke checks, and body checks how else will they learn and continuously demonstrate the technique properly. Some of the current NHL players don’t know about the entire ruling and that’s the intriguing part. What was happening with these players in their youth careers at the dawn of checking? If we start teaching the “right” way from the beginning and continue to develop the checking skills throughout a player’s career, things will reform.
Also coaches need to properly teach kids chasing after the puck near the boards for instance. I see young kids go after the biscuit in the corner straight on rather than approaching the puck at a slight angle to help absorb a hit better. Tell me when you see a player with eyes in the back of his head because I want him on my team. Only a small percentage of players it seems today have the know-how of approaching the puck with a plan in mind and knowing where others players on the ice are at the time. Kids need to also to be taught when to “check-up” too. Some suggest the “stop sign” on the back of the helmet and jersey. If the player has his back directly to you, chances are he is not going to make a significant play anyway as he can not see the play and you can quickly rub him into the boards without using full force.
Teach these kids to put the brakes on and not drill the kid through the boards so in 1.2 seconds this kid’s playing career isn’t over. Or even more importantly, his life! I believe checking is used to separate the player from the puck, period. Not to put him up in the 17th row. Not only educate on the physical aspect of body checking, but also the mental approach too.
Kids simply do not talk these days especially at the younger ages. Perhaps it’s the dawn of the cell phone and texting, but I’m sure Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Denis Potvin, or Bobby Orr did not go into the corners without a “heads-up” from either their defensive partner or goalie. If he did, I’m quite confident their communication did not break down when they went back to the bench! I realize the mouth guard can impede the speaking skills, but if they can argue on the bench over goals and assists, they can certainly give their buddy the benefit of the doubt on the ice.
Lastly, many have brought up the “respect” subject. The latest to do so is the colorful and often opinionated, Don Cherry, of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC). He has been around the game for many years and is very passionate about the game of hockey. I whole heartedly agree with him. Many players today think they are the biggest thing since sliced bread. It is evident across all age groups at all levels. I realize rookies are trying to earn a job while the vets are trying to keep their job in this dog-eat-dog, ultra-competitive, professional hockey league. Although it seems nobody cares or respects their opponent much anymore.
The olden days of getting a whack in school from your teacher for getting out of line is gone and so is that discipline on the ice. So if you only receive a 2-minute boarding or charging penalty for ruining a guys season, why wouldn’t you go out there and do it again. Somebody needs to sit that boy down and give him a good lesson. Then somebody needs to give him a better lesson with a beat down behind the shed on the ice in front of all his peers and fans. I’m sure he will not feel that tough underneath all that equipment anymore and he certainly will keep his elbows down and check straight on the next time.
In the end, yes it is ultimately the player that needs to recognize what is a legal check from the giving and receiving end. Including how to position his body along the boards and in open-ice to absorb checks, keeping his head-up, and the on-ice communication aspect. But then again, it is these players who possess that hockey sense and knowledge that compete at the higher levels and avoid dangerous situations for the most part.
Still these kids need guidance in the beginning at least. So the real and ultimate responsibility is still on a coach. He needs to teach the kids as a whole and individually at practice and during games. The sooner we integrate these simple techniques together at the early ages on a consistent basis the better and safer the game will be. So when these kids become professionals the game will still be physical and fast-paced, while being less dangerous. Please, no more head banging hockey.