July 25, 2011

Two strides forward, one giant step back

By Lyle Phair

Every second year at the USA Hockey Annual Congress in early June, rule change proposals are reviewed, discussed, dissected and then discussed some more. Over and over again, in several different committees and sections. They are looked at from every possible perspective and angle. Changes to the rules of the game are not taken lightly.

This year was no different.

The most controversial change proposed this year was the postponing of full body checking from the Pee Wee age group to the Bantam age group, meaning instead of beginning full body contact at the age of 11, it would be delayed until the year that the players were turning 13. If you happen to be a parent with children who have hit those milestones, or a coach who has had substantial experience dealing with 11-year-olds and 13-year-old players, it is not difficult to see the difference in mental and physical maturity between the two groups.

There are pretty much two separate schools of thought on the body-checking issue. Some people believe it is a huge part of the game and that players should be allowed to and taught to have full body contact from the beginning. The thinking being that at that age and size there isn’t as significant a difference in the size of the players and that they are not big enough to really hurt each other. By being allowed to give and receive checks, the players would become stronger on their skates. There are even some who believe that players will actually learn to keep their heads up and become better stickhandlers because of the threat of being body checked.

I have to admit that at one time I was partially in that camp. I did think that it wasn’t a bad thing that players had the opportunity to body check right from the youngest ages. It was that way when I played. It’s a contact sport. It’s the way the game is supposed to be played. You know, the typical things people think. But I have never subscribed to the theory that fear will make you better with the puck.

Yes, we all make mistakes and we all have the opportunity to learn continuously. What I had no experience with or understanding of was the body and mind of a kid aged 6 through 13. It is pretty easy to look at them as hockey players; a little more difficult to look at them as kids. Having had the opportunity to work with kids in that age group for more than 30 years has certainly given me a different point of view. I am not that slow of a learner, but I changed my perspective pretty quickly.

It didn’t take me long to realize that body checking was not a necessary part of the game for kids. In fact, it probably was more of a negative than a positive. Especially when I discovered that years 9 through 12 were the ages of primary skill acquisition for kids. My experience in the game had made me believe that; scientific research in long-term athletic development had reinforced it.

But there is other medical research that is even more important, which makes the decision to move to begin checking at age 13 all that more compelling. It’s data that can’t be ignored if you are a parent or coach concerned with the safety of the children who play hockey. The brain of an 11- or 12-year-old is not developed to the point where it can recognize situations where the player is at risk in a hockey game. To compound the problem, the brain of an 11- or 12-year old is more susceptible to a concussion than when a player is more mature at 13 and 14.

Skill and safety are the main two reasons why the USA Hockey ADM program managers made the proposal to delay checking until a more appropriate age group. Medical research and scientific fact are hard to argue with. While some will bemoan it initially, the benefits significantly dwarf the perceived negatives and the overall game experience for players will be enhanced both in the short-term and long-term.

For the first year that I can remember in attending these meetings, the council and section meetings were not dominated by the endless debate of tag-up offsides. Finally, it appeared that people were “getting it.” It definitely is not a playing rule that is in the best interest of players learning the game and developing their skills. But guess what? It somehow passed anyway. Beginning at Bantam (14U) and up.

There were a few versions of the tag-up rule being proposed. One for players 16U and older, one for players 14U and older and one for all age groups. It didn’t appear that anybody was interested in any of them, as there was little or no discussion on the topic at all.

Except in the athlete directors section. Apparently some in that group had a strong belief that tag-up offsides would add a positive element to the game. And I can’t say that I blame them for thinking that because I once thought the same thing about body checking. Until I actually had some experience coaching and understanding players at the youth level. When your last (and maybe only) frame of reference in the game is your playing career at a high level of the game (where tag-up is used and probably appropriate), it is pretty easy to think that it would be good for the younger levels of the game.

But it’s not. It’s a completely different game for kids. They are far from a finished product. They have a lot to learn and a substantial amount of skill to develop. Dumbing down the game for their coaches to force on them is not the best way to achieve that.

In fact, allowing tag-up offsides at Bantam and Midget is probably the worst time for it. It is a time when players finally have a somewhat refined skating and puck skill set and are starting to gain an understanding of the mental side of the game, reading the play and making good decisions. Tag-up offsides takes away the best opportunity possible for defensemen to develop those skills in a game, in the neutral zone, with the whole play in front of them while not having to worry about getting their face pasted to the glass from behind.

Too bad they won’t get the chance.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com