If you are a hockey parent, you’ve experienced that moment when your kid hit the boards or the ice so hard that you gasped out loud. It’s a terrible moment full of fear and uncertainty. And, as doctors are learning more and more about the long-term effects of concussions, it opens the door to a lot of questions about a body checking ban in youth hockey.
Every sport, whether it be baseball, football or hockey, brings with it some risk. And, every sport is allergic to changes to the game when it comes to limiting that risk. So, there’s little wonder why the topic of checking in youth hockey is so hotly debated.
People opposed to the idea of a body checking ban in youth hockey see it as a threat to the game they love. Those in favor of these bans see it as a necessary measure to protect young players from serious injuries.
Checking Ban—The History of the Debate
The conversations surrounding body checking in youth hockey have been taking place long before USA Hockey and Hockey Canada banned checking Pee Wee. And, they are only getting more heated and compelling as many parents like the idea of a body checking ban at Bantam (U14) level.
The Pee Wee ban was part of USA Hockey’s plan to focus on the development of young players and better protect their safety and well-being. Many worrisome hockey moms are happy that they won’t have to experience any more gasp-out-loud-in-terror moments as their son or daughter has a yard sale on open ice after having his/her clock cleaned.
But, there are just as many parents who feel that skaters need to learn how to play the game with hits if they want to progress to more competitive levels. It’s an issue that has hockey families divided.
Let’s look at where everyone is coming from on this topic.
Pro Body Checking: Safety
The main reasoning behind the checking ban in youth hockey is safety. Concussion research for contact sports like hockey or football is becoming more and more sophisticated and grounded. The research is making all sports rethink the physicality of play. For youth hockey, the American Academy of Pediatrics came to the following conclusion about body checking:
“Boys who play ice hockey in leagues that allow body checking are two to three times more likely to suffer serious injury and concussions compared to boys in non-checking programs.” (Reducing Injury Risk from Body Checking in Boys’ Youth Ice Hockey)
This research demonstrates the dangers of checking at particularly young ages. And, it points out that this risk is easily preventable by no longer allowing checking in youth hockey. The study understands that body checking at high levels of play is a reality. But, it makes the point that the harm of this rough play is amplified at younger ages.
The reason for this is because there is a significant discrepancy between age and size in youth leagues. The size difference is particularly the case around the start of puberty. There are late bloomers who remain underdeveloped until 13 or even 14-years-of-age playing against a 14-year-old who started puberty at age 11.
This creates a huge difference in size and strength, which is why many advocates of banning checking in youth hockey suggest that 15 is a good age to begin allowing checking. They claim players are more appropriately developed.
Pro Body Checking Ban: Skill
Another argument in favor of the ban suggests that prolonging the hitting aspect of the game allows young, budding players to focus less on hitting one another and more on building the foundations for their skills: passing, shooting, stick handling and the like.
The hope is that this will create more well-rounded, skilled and creative players on the ice that are capable of making better plays and not just hard hits.
Con Body Checking Ban: Learn Young
Those who support checking at the younger levels feel that the ban takes away one vital tool that is necessary to play the game. They argue checking is a tool used to separate the skater from the puck. They feel that checking is necessary for creating turnovers; thus, generating offense.
In addition, supporters of checking at all levels feel that a body checking ban can result in bad habits that lead to injury. The fear of getting hit forces players to keep their head up. No checking means players are more prone to pick up the bad hockey habit of keeping their head down and looking at the puck constantly.
When they graduate to an older league where hitting is allowed, opponents of the body checking ban argue that players will be more prone to injury. They won’t have learned to keep their head on a swivel. With their attention always on the puck, they won’t see the hits coming and be able to brace for the impact or avoid the hit altogether.
Con Body Checking Ban: Increased Injury
This is probably the best argument to keep body checking in youth hockey. There is even some research to support a spike in injury when youth players move from a non-checking Pee Wee league to a checking Bantam league. This spike is a 33% increase in serious injuries (defined as a player missing over a week of play).
This upsurge is certainly a cause for concern. However, opponents focus on the 300% increased risk for injury in Pee Wee leagues where checking is allowed. They argue that this small increase doesn’t offset the risks that younger players would be facing. And it’s also important to remember, the ban doesn’t preclude coaches from teaching body checking, in preparation for the more physical levels of play.
Con Body Checking Ban: It’s a Physical Game
Fans and players alike enjoy the physical nature of hockey. For some youth hockey players, game time provides a much-needed opportunity for them to get out some aggression. Some opponents of the checking ban in youth hockey fear that taking away this outlet for their child’s aggression may lead him/her to act out aggressively in other aspects of their life, like at school.
There isn’t any data or research to support this claim. So, it makes it hard for it to stand up against the mountains of concussion research.
The counter argument here is that removing body checking in youth hockey doesn’t make it an entirely safe sport. It will never be devoid of any physical contact. Removing checking in youth hockey is different than banning any and all body contact. There will still be plenty of scuffles along the boards as the player’s dig for a loose puck. And, there will be incidental contact collisions.
What this ban aims to remove are the hard hits on open ice or against the boards. It wants to eliminate hits where the objective is to harm the other player. Coaches can create new methods to teach body contact to disrupt the other team’s play without checking.
I am sure there are several more pros and cons to this argument.
No matter what side of the debate you’re on, physicality is the nature of sports. And, many people want to see the level of physicality change. Rarely, if ever, is that change met with complete acceptance and open arms. There will always be people arguing for the sanctity of the game they love. And, there will always be people embracing change.