Melissa Walsh

The New Rules of Engagement

Powerplay Communications | July 2011 | Hockey Mom Sens blog: "The New Rules of Engagement"

In June, USA Hockey’s governing body ruled to remove body checking from Peewee level (ages 11-12). If you’ve followed any of the youth hockey blogs out there, you know this approved rule change proposal, called the “Checking Rule Development Program,” impacted the approach to youth hockey development at all levels and caused quite a stir in the tight-knit hockey community across the United States. Though the program prompted significant adjustments to the rules of engagement across all levels, last season’s rink-side debates leading up to the vote in June were dominated by the Peewee checking rule-change controversy.

USA Hockey President Ron DeGregorio stressed to parents and coaches that USA Hockey’s new approach to introducing body checking “will better prepare their children for the physical part of the game.” NHL veterans, neuroscientists, pediatric physicians, and other subject-matter experts contributed to the dialogue and provided the insight and research that led to the rule changes inherent in the checking rule development program and the new coaching practices and officiating guidelines that come with it.

The other significant rule change was passed with little discussion “outside the room” of the USA Hockey governing body. Starting at the Bantam level (ages 13 and 14), delayed offsides, or “tag-up,” will be the standard. I’m glad for this rule change and looking forward to watching my three Bantam-level players engage in a more free-flowing and faster game.

So what do I think about the controversial checking rule changes? Though I realize that the new model prescribes progressive body contact as players move up through the development levels, I’m still concerned about the reality of how players will be coached and officiated. The checking rule development program just sounds so utopian. Though well-thought out and well-intentioned by folks who have watched, coached and played far more hockey than me, I struggle to perceive how the new rules can possibly be consistently well-coached and well-enforced. The game is too fast, and USA Hockey’s good, dedicated coaches and refs are too inconsistent (because they’re only human).

The rule of thumb for legal body contact will be that the player has to appear to be going for the puck, not the opposing player’s body, with his or her stick on the ice. Okay, I get that. That’s the standard for contact in my women’s beer league. But we play a much slower game than the quick, impulsive hot-shot kids.

I’m concerned that players, especially our second-year Peewees, will be frustrated and confused as they attempt to play aggressively, yet have to pause split-second to discern between appropriately aggressive body contact versus overly aggressive body checking. The parents will be confused, likely raising their arms every time the opposition instigates body contact, but that goes without saying. There will be a learning curve that’ll be steepest for this season’s second-year Peewees. USA Hockey would probably argue that, over time, appropriate contact will become instinctive. Okay, I get that.

But I’m also concerned about the vast variance in size among 13- and 14-year old boys. I cringe at the thought of turning on the green light for legal hitting at this age. The art of throwing and receiving the body check ought to be well-honed before Bantams. My oldest son sustained two serious injuries last year from “clean” hits. If he hadn’t had so many years of practice taking hits, might his injuries have been much worse? I don’t know. I’m certain that the developers of the new checking skill program have considered that dynamic theoretically. I’m just concerned that the real-life consequences of introducing body checking at the Bantam level may present very differently than the forethought that flowed into the top-down prescription for body checking, which is being integrated into USA Hockey’s very complex development model. I know that in Quebec the kids start body checking as Bantams; yet in Ontario, they begin body checking as Atoms (Squirts). It’s difficult to know for certain which approach is better for development and safety in the long run. So though I applaud the effort to develop a “safe” checking model, I’m concerned about how model “modules” and principles will be taught and enforced. I look forward to learning more as I participate in a coaching clinic this fall.

So fellow hockey parents, coaches and players, how to you feel about USA Hockey’s rule changes? I’d like to add a few guest-blog entries on this topic. Send your two-cents to melissa@powerplaycommunications.com. Or send me a note via Twitter @powerplaywriter or my Facebook page.

In the meantime, especially if your kid is younger than a Bantam, by all means, refrain from calling out the “hit somebody” suggestion from your safe zone behind the glass.