Wednesday, June 08, 2011

USA Hockey Proposal Hits a Nerve

Saturday, USA Hockey will vote on a proposal to ban checking at the peewee level of youth hockey. That means kids playing under the USA Hockey banner will not be allowed to throw body checks until they are 13 years old, when they are bantams.

Your first reaction to this proposal is probably close to mine, which was "This is stupid," "We can't keep shielding kids from the physical part of the game if they're ever going to learn it," or "Ugh."

But that's why you don't base a public stance on the first thing you think of in reaction to an idea like this. Sometimes, you have to read more about it.

(You don't always have to. When some guy proposed getting rid of any government service you can get online -- presumably said "some guy" wants to get rid of elections, since people can easily vote for things online -- you can react immediately to that insanity.)

With that in mind, here is some reading material on USA Hockey's proposal.


Here is a video discussing the potential changes.

I encourage you to read all of this and draw your own conclusion. It's clear through my conversations with hockey people that this idea has hit a bit of a nerve, even with those in favor of the idea.

Here are some points made by USA Hockey in the online FAQ linked above.

... cognitively, the 11 year old brain has not fully developed the ability to anticipate while multitasking. Anticipation is 50% of a player’s ability to protect himself and avoid heavy contact that leads to these serious injuries. We realize there should be contact in hockey; however, we do not want to place players into a situation where their cognitive skills are not yet fully developed to protect themselves. This is a function of brain development that players cannot “learn” by doing.


Body contact and body positioning skills are far more important for a player to acquire at the Pee Wee level and are the precursors to effective checking and playing skills as they get older.


It is not accurate to simply say USA Hockey is taking checking out of Pee Wees. The overall proposal is to increase the allowable body contact beginning at Mites and progress through Bantam when full, legal body checking would begin in games. As an example, the American Developmental Model (ADM) Red, White & Blue Hockey at 8U introduces the cross-ice environment to increase traffic and congestion and thus the associated natural body contact by simply reducing space.

The proposal would then increase the allowable body contact as players progress through Squirts and Pee Wees. Competing at the puck, angling to gain possession or stopping an offensive attack are examples at these levels. An important objective of thisproposal is to eliminate the “Big Hit” in Pee Wees where players ignore the puck and try to ‘blow up’ an opponent.

Though not allowed in games, coaches will be asked to introduce and teach full body checking techniques in every practice (~85 practices / year = ~170 total during the two years) during the two Pee Wee years. We believe this to be a better solution than what we often times see today as a single weekend “introduction to checking” clinic. The proposal is to provide players with two years to acquire the necessary checking skills in a safer environment.

There are a few big points for me. For starters, hockey associations really need to go "all-in" on the American Development Model for this to be a successful transition. As USA Hockey says, they aren't trying to take body contact out of the peewee level. And if you watch the video, there is a stark difference between body checking (no attempt to play the puck) and body contact (oftentimes done as a means to protect the puck from an opponent).

That said, it's going to be hugely important for local associations to emphasize the teaching points brought out in the ADM and mentioned in the proposal. USA Hockey doesn't want coaches to de-emphasize the teaching of proper body checking and body contact in practices. It's just as important as teaching systems or other hockey skills. Instead, coaches need to make sure they provide squirts and peewees with a base of knowledge for how to properly check, and how to do successfully backcheck or win a battle for the puck on the wall without throwing that big, intimidating hit that USA Hockey is trying to de-emphasize.

None of it works without cooperation at the lower level, and not just with certain portions of the ADM. You can't decide to play half-ice games with 8U teams half the time. It's all or nothing, or the kids just aren't going to get out of half-ice games what USA Hockey wants them to. Same goes for the suggested number of practices. Coaches need to work to get their kids the practice time necessary to learn how to play the game the right way. Following the ADM isn't exactly a bad idea in this regard.

In the end, this proposal -- which is expected to pass -- isn't getting a full endorsement from USA Hockey's membership.

In a close vote, (Minnesota Hockey) instructed its four representatives on the national board to vote against raising the age level for legalized checking from peewees (ages 11 and 12) to bantams (13 and 14).

Among Minnesota Hockey's concerns about banning peewee checking are:

• Girls would stay in boys' hockey two more years, hurting the overall development of the girls' game.

• Non-USA sanctioned programs will continue to check.

• There is insufficient time for players, coaches, officials and parents to adapt.

• Peewee coaches might not teach checking in practices, which would increase injuries among bantam players.

No one thinks this is some sort of world-ending idea, but there are some who think tougher penalties on illegal checking would do more to educate kids than this proposal will.

But in the end, I'm a believer in the idea that if coaches do what USA Hockey wants them to do, things will work out fine. Kids will learn to check the right way, and while it won't take injuries completely out of the game (nothing will do that), this proposal will make the game safer for kids under 13. Hopefully, it's a tool that can be used to keep more kids playing the game as they get older and their bodies round into form.

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