Every practice should focus on skill development. For most coaches, players and parents, that means skating, shooting, stickhandling and passing
But there’s another skill that sometimes gets overlooked, one that’s just as important for players of all levels: body contact and body-checking.
“(Being able to properly check and use body contact is) 100 percent a tremendous skill to have,” said Ken Klee, a 14-year NHL veteran and coach of the 2014 United States Women’s National Team that competed at Four Nations in November. “It’s a skill that players never stop needing and one they should never stop learning, no matter what the age level.”
Here are five reasons why body contact should be a part of your practice plans this season:
1. Change the Big-Hit Mentality
Hard hits are often cheered at the college and pro levels. Glass-shattering checks can bring a crowd to its feet. But that’s not the purpose of body contact and body-checking.
“Unfortunately as players get older, they think of checking as trying to wreck and smash other kids, but that’s not it,” said Klee. “Checking is the same as body contact when done properly. It’s trying to knock the other player off the puck so you can get the puck, not trying to knock the other player down so you feel better about yourself.”
Introduce your players to it with body-contact drills. Incorporate drills that include physical contact while trying to gain possession of the puck. Players will learn the physical part of the game naturally through these activities.
2. To Get the Puck – and Keep It
Puck possession is the name of the game.
“The team that has the puck the most wins,” says Klee. “Bottom line.”
One way to gain puck possession is through proper body contact and body-checking. Separate the player from the puck. Klee uses steering and angling drills during practice. By emphasizing stick-on-puck as the initial point of contact, a defensive player will inherently be in better position to angle the opponent while taking away time and space.
While the body contact skills progression begins at the 8U level, it should be honed at all levels. Small-area games and station-based practices provide a safe environment for players to become comfortable making contact and positioning themselves correctly.
“One of the things I do in every practice is have (players) do angle drills,” Klee said. “I have them angle themselves to protect the puck 2-on-2. They start putting their body between the player and the puck by rubbing them out.”
Once you get the puck, you have to protect it. One way to protect the puck is to learn how to properly absorb and receive body contact and body-checking.
“You need an awareness of how to put your body between the opponent and the puck,” added Klee. “It’s a great way to maintain puck possession and play the game.”
3. Preventing Injury and Staying Out of the Box
Developing contact confidence, respect for the opponent and the rules of the game are critical to preventing injury. Players need to know they must keep their hands and elbows down to avoid head contact. They cannot take runs at opposing players and should be cognizant of distance traveled when engaging an opponent. They cannot leave their feet or hit from behind.
Kids should start learning and practicing the proper form at the youngest ages to avoid both injury and penalties.
4. Board Battles
A large portion of hockey happens in the corners and along the boards. Those puck battles require a physical presence.
“The reason you go in for a check along the boards is to regain puck possession,” said Klee. “It’s the number-one reason we even check in hockey – for puck possession.”
Reiterate the use of body positioning and angles, along with balance. Players who have a strong presence in the corners tend to put their team in a good position to gain puck possession, and ultimately score goals.
5. It’s Key to Overall Development
When USA Hockey removed body-checking from 12U hockey games, it wasn’t meant to remove the teaching of body contact techniques. Teaching proper body contact and body-checking at every level of development is necessary to prepare players for higher levels of hockey.
It’s a skill they need to succeed.
“I use in coaching at 8U all the way up to college players and pros,” said Klee. “It’s a skill players need to keep practicing just like they need to practice skating, shooting and passing. It’s (a skill) that needs continued work throughout an entire hockey career.”
For more on the proper way to teach checking, visit USA Hockey’s Checking Manual