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Changing Checking: Coaches and Players Evaluate New Youth Hockey Rules on Hitting 

  • Luke Ratliff, top center, gathers with his Hanover youth hockey teammates during a break between periods at Campion Rink in West Lebanon last weekend. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Luke Ratliff, top center, gathers with his Hanover youth hockey teammates during a break between periods at Campion Rink in West Lebanon last weekend. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jake Acker leaves the rink with Hanover youth hockey teammates playing at Campion Rink. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Jake Acker leaves the rink with Hanover youth hockey teammates playing at Campion Rink. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nate Damren watches his Hanover teammates play.(Valley News - Libby March)

    Nate Damren watches his Hanover teammates play.(Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Baker, center, of the Hanover Bantam Green youth hockey team, rests his head against the glass behind his bench during a Jan. 30 practice at Campion Rink in West Lebanon. While many Vermont youth hockey teams have started their state tournaments, most New Hampshire squads still have regular-season games to play before states arrives. The Wild, which plays in New Hampshire Tier II, is competing for a spot in next month’s states, which will be held at St. Anselm College in Manchester in early March. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Alan Baker, center, of the Hanover Bantam Green youth hockey team, rests his head against the glass behind his bench during a Jan. 30 practice at Campion Rink in West Lebanon. While many Vermont youth hockey teams have started their state tournaments, most New Hampshire squads still have regular-season games to play before states arrives. The Wild, which plays in New Hampshire Tier II, is competing for a spot in next month’s states, which will be held at St. Anselm College in Manchester in early March. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Luke Ratliff, top center, gathers with his Hanover youth hockey teammates during a break between periods at Campion Rink in West Lebanon last weekend. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Jake Acker leaves the rink with Hanover youth hockey teammates playing at Campion Rink. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Nate Damren watches his Hanover teammates play.(Valley News - Libby March)
  • Alan Baker, center, of the Hanover Bantam Green youth hockey team, rests his head against the glass behind his bench during a Jan. 30 practice at Campion Rink in West Lebanon. While many Vermont youth hockey teams have started their state tournaments, most New Hampshire squads still have regular-season games to play before states arrives. The Wild, which plays in New Hampshire Tier II, is competing for a spot in next month’s states, which will be held at St. Anselm College in Manchester in early March. (Valley News - Libby March)

The difference is startling.

In practice, the Peewees fly around the ice — dashes and circles, stops and starts. It’s pure hockey freedom. At this level — Peewee players are 11 or 12 years old — there is no intentional body contact. The only noise comes from skates and sticks chattering along the Campion Rink surface.

Up the road, at Thompson Arena, the sound is different. The Bantam skaters — ages 13 to 14 — are more deliberate. There’s less speed, more control. Less free-form gliding over the ice — and a lot more bodies crashing into the sideboards.

Hockey, like football, boasts marvelously talented players competing in an environment of controlled violence. But there is trouble on the gridiron, and on the ice.

Football’s detractors say tackling has turned into head-hunting. Concussions are rampant. Brain injuries blamed on years of hits to the head have been cited in everything from quality-of-life issues for retired players to suicides and murders. To make the sport safer, tackling techniques are being re-evaluated from the professional ranks on down.

In hockey, the number of serious injuries suffered by youngsters just beginning the sport, from concussions to broken bones to paralysis, has caused parents, doctors and officials from national and international organizations to rethink the rules — starting from the bottom up.

Hence, two years ago, USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, decided to raise the age at which youth hockey players are allowed to throw checks from Peewees to Bantams.

To some the move makes all the sense in the world. Others, at least at first, wondered if their beloved game was turning into hockey lite.

While football may be fighting to save its professional life, hockey may be fighting to save its soul.

The numbers are startling.

In a 2010 Canadian study involving 2,154 youth hockey players ages 11-12, University of Calgary professor Carolyn Emery compared injuries to players in Alberta, where body checking is permitted in Peewee-level hockey, with Quebec, where it is discouraged. The study found 241 reported injuries in Alberta, compared with 91 injuries in Quebec. The difference in concussions was even more stark, with 77 reported in Alberta compared with 22 in Quebec.

Armed with that information, USA Hockey raised the age at which body checking in games would be permitted to the Bantam level (ages 13-14) prior to the 2011-12 season. That didn’t mean the younger players would get no checking, though.

“Though not allowed in games,” USA Hockey explained, “coaches will be asked to introduce and teach full body checking techniques in every practice during the two Peewee years. … We believe this to be a better solution than what we oftentimes see as a single weekend ‘introduction to checking’ clinic. The proposal is to provide players two years to acquire the necessary checking skills in a safer environment.”

The move was applauded by coaches, parents, officials and the medical community for its far-reaching safety implications.

Keith Loud is a hockey parent. His son, Gabriel, plays goalie on the Hanover Bantam Green team. He is also the chief of general pediatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon and board certified in sports medicine. He sees the numbers and knows the consequences. “This is not new news,” said Loud, citing another Canadian study, this one done in the ’90s, that showed players in youth leagues that allowed body checking had fracture rates 12 times higher than leagues without checking.

“There is increased concern that the young brain is more susceptible to concussion,” said Loud. “The body needs time to develop.”

At the same time, Loud pointed out, there is a wide developmental range in that age group, with some kids growing up faster than others. Delaying body checking by a year or two may not provide enough protection. “I think there needs to be some accommodation for the smaller 13-year-olds to play without checking while they mature,” he said.

And Loud doesn’t think the checking restriction has changed the youth game.

“It’s still the game of ice hockey if checking is taken out of it,” he said.

Lukas Weber, of Andover, N.H., has a unique view on the issue. As a 10-year-old in the Kearsarge Youth Hockey Association, Lukas played up a level, skating with a Peewee team. At the time, Peewees were allowed to check, and Lukas was taking his lumps. Now 12, Lukas recalled worrying more about body contact than playing hockey.

“It was fun to hit, but when you got hit, it hurt,” he said before taking the ice last week at Campion Rink.

His father, Kurt Weber, remembered being worried, too.

“I was a little concerned,” Weber said. “You’re always concerned when it’s your kid. I knew it was part of the growing experience of hockey, but I was just worried about that one kid who was more interested in hitting than playing the game.”

With the rule change in effect, both father and son have less to worry about now. But Weber, who coaches three teams in the Kearsarge league, admits to being a little leery at first. “When I first heard about it, I was against it,” he said. “I thought it was the wrong direction to go for hockey.

“Checking is a part of the game. Why not let the kids grow into it the way they always have. I was concerned there was a risk of introducing hitting too late for some kids. But now I love it. I’m real glad they made the change. I think it’s working. I think it helps promote skill development.”

And Lukas, who attends Andover Elementary and is considering playing on a Hanover youth team next season, finds himself skating more freely and not worrying so much about taking a hit.

“It’s helped me become a better hockey player,” he said.

Dick Dodds, of Hanover, has been around hockey for most of his life. He has coached the Hanover High team for more than 30 years and serves as manager at Campion Rink. At the high school level, he said “checking is certainly as important as stickhandling, shooting or skating. It’s one of the fundamental parts of hockey.”

“The idea of hitting, or angling, is not to take the guy down, but to separate the man from the puck,” he said. “Checking is part of the game — you hit for the right reason, not to try and hurt someone.”

Dodds, for one, likes the new Peewee checking restriction. He points to the Canadian game, where the Bantam-age kids are kept from checking, too. “I’m happy with the rules as they are. I’m more of a finesse coach, so if they took out more hitting — like the Canadians — I think people would see the game is better without (the hitting). The game is still physical. It’s still a tough game. It wouldn’t hurt it any.”

Peewee coach John Adams, of Vershire, sees the advantages of the non-checking rule.

“It puts parents at ease, that’s for sure,” he said as his Peewee group hit the ice at Campion Rink on Wednesday night. “We have two girls on our team. If there was checking at this level, I’m sure they wouldn’t be here. … But I’d rather go without checking so we can have them on our team. I think it’s good to have that kind of mix at this age. And it doesn’t affect the quality of play at all.”

Jim Damren, of West Lebanon, sees the issue from multiple sides. He has one son, Ryan, playing on the Lebanon High School varsity hockey team (where checking is allowed), coaches another son, Nate, on the Bantam level (where he is in his first year checking) and has a third son, Aaron, playing Peewee hockey (where there’s no checking).

“I heard about four or five years before that (a checking ban) might be coming,” said Damren, who coaches the Hanover Bantam I team. “USA Hockey felt that checking was becoming too much of a focal point. Full-on, open-ice checks are out, but you can still grind along the boards and come together shoulder to shoulder.

“The idea is that you must enter the play with the purpose to get the puck away from the other player, not just for the sake of making a hit. We are teaching them to play hockey, and I think (hitting) is part of the game.”

At the Mites level (7- and 8-year-olds) and the Squirts (9-10), coaches introduce body contact, not body checking. “The word isn’t used. They don’t even talk about it,” said Damren. “I tell people when you play at the Bantam level, our job is to get the kids ready to play high school hockey. We prepare them for the workload, the intensity and the physical nature of the game at that next level.”

In addition to reducing injuries, the concern that drove the rule change, Damren said, was that young players were leaving the sport because of checking. While everyone wants to keep the players safe, Damren said, “The jury is still out on whether (the rule) will have the desired effect of keeping kids in the sport.”

Damren, who is also on the board of the Hanover Hockey Association, said checking is a part of every practice. But players who have just come up from Peewees work on drills first, to ease their way into the activity. “It’s not a component at the Peewee level. It’s just not given as much time — as it should be,” said Damren. “It’s counterproductive to utilize ice time — at $200 an hour — to work on things you can’t use in a game.

“When we get them, we try to teach how to take a check, to protect themselves. They learn to keep the feet moving, keep the head up and skate through the check. For those kids who have not done it before, we need to teach them the right way to do it.”

Pat Logan has been on the hockey rules yo-yo the past three years. Two years ago, as a Peewee, he played on a checking team. Last year, the rules changed and his Peewee team played without hitting. This year, as a Bantam, the 13-year-old Richmond School eighth-grader is back in the hitting game.

“It was more agitating the year I couldn’t check,” he said. “It was a hard transition. I had to think about not hitting all the time.”

“I tried to use my body as much as I could without getting called for it. Now, (checking) is just part of the game.”

Pat said the year he spent on the checking Peewee team was not a problem. He knew he just had to keep his head up and the game would take care of itself. “My dad played hockey, so he knew what it was like. He wasn’t worried. And my mom was real supportive.

“Then, when I moved up to Bantams, it was a good transition. It’s the way I’ll be playing hockey now forever.”

So what happens to kids when they reach the Bantam level and checking is introduced into their game?

In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in June 2011, Emery, the Calgary professor, discovered no difference in concussions or overall injury rates, regardless of whether Bantam players had prior body checking experience in Peewees.

In a subsequent article in ScienceDaily, Emery reported, “When we did (the original) study, we repeatedly heard from advocates for body checking in Peewee that the injury rate in Bantam would be much higher for players without Peewee body checking experience,” said Emery. “What we found is that the overall injury and concussion risk does not differ between Bantam leagues.”

Damren said his Bantam team has had only one injury this season — an injury not related to checking. And this with a team made up mostly of players from the Peewee ranks who did not check in games last year. “These kids checked two years ago, so it wasn’t as tough, but it was still a transition. And you’ve got to build up that mentality where you are ready to give a hit and take a hit.

“I think you’re going to have to wait another year before making judgments,” said Damren. “We need to wait until the Peewees who have never hit before move up to the Bantam level.”

In the end, everyone may be right.

The medical evidence suggests that body checking at an early age carries an increased possibility of injury. At the same time, body checking is an integral part of the sport. At some point, players are going to collide, so it will be up to the referees to determine if a check is legal.

And don’t forget what Dodds said: The point of hitting is to separate the opponent from the puck, not from his senses.

To that end, Loud, the pediatrician and hockey parent who also plays in Dodds’ adult Campion Hockey League, wonders if it’s possible to keep games like football and hockey completely safe. “What nags me is the question of whether checking or tackling can ever be taught safely enough to eliminate the risk of concussion,” he said.

But to the kids, it’s all about the game. The Peewees and their younger brethren have the same heroes and dreams as the older Bantams.

It’s just a difference in application.

“It doesn’t matter,” 12-year-old Lukas Weber said of the checking issue as headed out on the ice last week. “It’s still hockey.”

Donald Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

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