April 15, 2011

From NEHJ: Pee Wee checking may take a hit

By Brion O'Connor

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. 

A USA Hockey proposal to ban body checking until Bantams has support, but raises questions. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)
A USA Hockey proposal to ban body checking until Bantams has support, but raises questions. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

To hit or not to hit?

That’s the question that USA Hockey advisory board members are grappling with, and will be voting on in June, as the organization considers prohibiting body checking at the Pee Wee level.

At the USA Hockey winter meetings in Colorado in January, considerable discussion centered on a proposed rules modification that would prohibit body checking in games for youth hockey players until they reach the Bantam level (13-14 years old). The current rule allows checking in games at the Pee Wee level (11-12 years old).

“This is a proposal that has significant support, and we look forward to continued dialogue throughout the country on this and all proposed rule changes,” USA Hockey president Ron DeGregorio (Salem, N.H.) said. “In the end, we need to do what is best for the kids who play the game.”

According to several sources, USA Hockey is pushing strongly for the change, though the public stance is that they’re gathering more information to address the issue in June.

The issue breaks down into three fairly distinct questions:

First, what is the best age to introduce body checking?

Second, what is the optimal age to begin coaching checking, and are youth hockey coaches across the board sufficiently versed to teach checking correctly?

Third, is the current level of youth hockey officiating adequate to call the game correctly, ensuring a safe environment for players?

“It is a skill development initiative first,” said USA Hockey’s senior director of development, Kevin McLaughlin, in published reports.

McLaughlin added that the organization’s research found that body checking at the Pee Wee level was significantly distracting players from improving their skills at a critical time in their development. Too often, players of that age were either too focused on hitting or trying to avoid a hit.
“We have to capitalize on what is known as the optimal window of skill acquisition — the age that a kid can maximize his genetic potential, whatever that might be,” McLaughlin said. “In hockey, skill acquisition — that optimum trainability — is through 12 years old. So we had to ask ourselves, for two years, are we creating an environment where the focus is on hitting and not on making plays?”

Based on numerous sources, there appears to be strong support for bumping body checking up to Bantam levels, while simultaneously introducing the art of body contact and angling during practices to Squirts (9-10 years old). 

According to John Gallagher, a father of young hockey players and former supervisor of officials for Women’s Hockey East, young players today often emulate much of what is wrong with the professional game, and haven’t developed the respect for their opponents that has traditionally been part of hockey’s foundation.

“When I played, we looked forward to ‘hitting’ an opponent,” Gallagher said. “Today, kids want to ‘hurt’ the opponent. Maybe it goes along with the lack of respect in society today. It certainly applies to the games kids play on any surface.

“The biggest problem I see with kids at the Pee Wee level is the drastic range in size between the biggest and smallest player on any team,” he says. “Add the ‘hurt vs. hit’ mentality to an 11- or 12-year-old going against a player who may be 10 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter, you have potential problems. Some might disagree, but I am used to seeing the more skilled players at this level usually be on the smaller end of the size chart. That skilled kid becomes a target in no time, and there is no question what
tactics are used to target the kid.”

Gallagher’s observations are supported by John Gardner, president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, which has roughly 40,000 players on 2,800 teams. “Kids are copying what they see in the NHL,” Gardner told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “I don’t care what anybody says, that’s a fact. And when the kids see it, they don’t understand why they can’t do it.”

At the USA Hockey winter meetings, Dr. Michael Stuart, the organization’s chief medical officer and a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., presented summary findings from the ice hockey summit on concussions he led in October at the Mayo Clinic. His recommendations include:

* Implement concussion education for coaches, parents, officials and athletes.

* Through rule changes, eliminate tolerance of any contact to the head.

* Delay legal body checking in games in youth hockey until age 13.

* Emphasize current curriculum that teaches body control, angling, anticipation, body contact and body-checking skills.

* Eliminate fighting through more stringent penalties for engaging in such behavior.

“Compounding this issue at the Pee Wee level is a real inconsistency in calling these infractions involving especially ‘hitting from behind,’” Gallagher said. “I’m not being critical here; this is my observation from games at the Pee Wee level.

“A new official has to get his feet wet pretty quickly, especially if he or she will be doing Pee Wee games,” he said. “A 15-year-old kid is going to get an earful for calling a HFB (hit from behind) or any contact-related infraction from most coaches and parents at this level. I have seen it and I have heard it.”

DeGregorio said the advisory board will formally address Stuart’s recommendations at USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in June.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com