USA Hockey will vote on a rule change in June, which would move the legal age for body checking from U12 (Peewee) to U14 (Bantam). This rule change has spurred a lot of discussion among coaches debating on whether or not it is the right move.
Before going into a discussion of whether the rule change best serves the players, let’s take a look at the primary reasons USA Hockey is citing for considering the change.
Reason #1: According to sports science research, 9-12 years old is the optimal window for skill acquisition. The claim is the removal of checking would allow two more years of hockey, cognitive, and physical development.
Reason #2: Research indicates there is a 3-fold increased risk of game-related injury (concussions and severe injuries included) when playing in a checking league versus a non-checking league.
Reason #3: The 11-year old brain is more susceptible to suffering a concussion, and is more susceptible to long-term damage if it is concussed. (Information taken from a Mayo Clinic Concussion Symposium)
Here is USA Hockey’s video outlining these reasons as well as demonstrating some examples of what will and will not be allowed:
The proposal also includes progressively increasing the amount of body contact in Mite, Squirt, and Peewee age groups. Mite contact will be increased by introducing more cross-ice games, which creates less space and more collisions. Increasing the amount of small area competitive games and stations, as well as allowing more contact in games will increase contact at the Squirt level. Peewee contact should be progressed by teaching full-body checking in practice and dryland training – although I’m not sure how they see this as increasing the amount of contact at this age level.
This proposed change has stirred up a lot of emotion and controversy among players, parents, and coaches alike. If you break down the first two primary reasons USA Hockey has presented for the change, there appears to be arguments on both sides of the fence.
Reason #1: If players 9-12-years are in a window for optimal skill acquisition, wouldn’t checking be a skill which should be developed and mastered through the players career? I whole-heartedly agree the primary focus of this age group should be skill development, but I do see checking as a skill.
Reason #2: While this reason really can’t be argued, the question becomes – does this also apply to Bantams…or Midgets…or Juniors…etc? Does this mean we should take checking out of the game completely to make it safer? I struggle with this argument because I believe there always going to be an inherent risk of injury with a contact sport. Hockey is a contact sport.
Reason #3: I cannot debate this particular reason – I am not a medical expert. The argument certainly makes sense to me in terms of the physical development of kids. In my opinion, this item should have been used as their primary reasoning behind the proposal.
Benefits / Detriments
I believe the proposal does positively serve some groups, while doing a disservice to other groups. In house-league (recreational) hockey, I believe this rule change could help increase participation and will have an overall positive impact. Many of the players playing at the house level lack the fundamental skills necessary to safely and effectively body check in game scenarios.
While the proposal may serve recreation level hockey well, I don’t believe it will serve competitive hockey players nearly as well. Players who have a solid foundation in the skills necessary (skating, edgework, etc.) to safely execute a body check will now be losing two seasons of developing this skill. There are two main points where I believe this change does a disservice:
Point #1: Checking will be moving to an age category where players are bigger, faster, and stronger. According to USA Hockey’s “Window of Trainability” chart (http://www.admkids.com/images/content/WindowsofTrainability.jpg), players between 12-14 are in an optimal training window for speed and strength. It has been my experience that there is a large disparity in the strength between first year Bantams and second year Bantams – in part due to kids beginning to grow and starting to mature. I believe this physical disparity will cause more issues than we currently see at the U12 (Peewee) level where checking is currently introduced.
Point #2: The structure of many States push youth players into a high school or midget programs. These programs typically have a 4-year age spread (Freshmen – Senior). Especially in the case of high school programs (think JV & Varsity teams), it is often the case where players will only play a single year of Bantam hockey before joining a high school team. Now there will be players being introduced to an environment with a huge age/maturity span with only a single year of checking experience under their belts. In my opinion, this scenario is not conducive to the safety of the players involved.
A Big Challenge
Any coach who has been coaching through the last significant rule changes in USA Hockey – immediate off sides and the new standard of enforcement for stick penalties – know the frustration that came along with the changes. In my opinion, the single biggest challenge the checking proposal faces is the ability for officials to consistently call the new standards. The new standard will introduce a lot of gray-area and put the burden on the officials to differentiate between incidental contact and intentional body checking. Hopefully parents, coaches and players will have some patience with officials as they work through the kinks, but there will remain the potential of some very heated/emotional situations.
The Core of it All / My Recommendations
I believe the core of this issue really lies in education and development of the skill of checking. I’m not a fan of putting rules in place instead of addressing a core deficiency. Here are my thoughts/recommendations for USA Hockey instead of implementing the current checking proposal:
Increase/Update the Materials Available – USA Hockey does give coaches some good resources to learn how to teach checking (http://www.usahockey.com//Template_Usahockey.aspx?NAV=CO_07_04&ID=270654) – however, I believe something sorely lacking is an updated video for coaches discussing how to teach checking on-ice. There is a descent (albeit a little old-looking) USA Hockey “Heads Up” Hockey video –but to find it, I had to search YouTube and find it uploaded by a user (not by USA Hockey): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMV9Q97k3sk
In case you haven’t yet seen our videos I’ve included them here:
Start a Checking Safety Initiative – Much like rolling out cross-ice 8U programs, in my opinion, USA Hockey should put similar efforts into checking training. This could include USA Hockey sanctioned checking clinics (organized at a State level), traveling reps to work with coaches, and dedicated checking clinics for coaches to learn how to teach the skills properly. There could also be a requirement for all Peewee players to go through checking training (or a checking clinic) prior to being allowed to play.
Make a Minor Change – Instead of introducing such a drastic measure, along with increased training for coaches, I believe if there were to be one change, it should be to eliminate open ice checking at the U12 (Peewee) level. Often times, these are some of the most dangerous because you have kids who are lacking skill (in checking) attempting to make a big hit. I believe this small change would help (at least a bit) to reduce the number of injuries occurring.
While I do believe the proposal will make the game safer in some instances, I believe it will actually make it more dangerous in others. I believe the focus needs to be on education of those involved in teaching the skill of checking. I don’t ever want to see a kid hurt, but at the same time, I recognize this is a contact sport. Contact sports carry an inherent risk of injury – no matter what age level you begin the contact. Assuming this proposal passes, my hope is we’re not taking an issue that currently plagues our sport at the U12 level and simply transplanting it to the U14 level.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments and opinions on this topic. Please feel free to leave a comment below: