Today the Hockey Canada board of directors voted to eliminate body-checking from all PeeWee hockey (both “A” and “C”). This ban has been championed by many intelligent hockey minds nationwide over the past several years. Despite a large amount of popular opposition to the ban, the combination of statistics on concussions and almost a decade of personal experience watching and officiating PeeWee “A” hockey makes it difficult to argue the wisdom of this decision. PeeWee players are, by and large, lousy hitters. They hit with their hands, their elbows, their sticks, they leave their feet, and its amazing that there aren’t more injuries.
As someone who played body contact hockey for seven years and has officiated some of the highest-level body contact hockey in Canada, I can unequivocally state that it is possible to play a fast, skilled, tough, physical hockey game and not throw a single body-check. I don’t believe that we will ever see professional hockey without body-checking, but the idea that it must be included at all levels of minor hockey because the professionals do it is absurd.
However, passing this resolution is not enough; the resolution itself is meaningless unless Hockey Canada understands the responsibility they have to ensure that Bantam “A” does not become PeeWee “A” plus testosterone. If this is allowed to happen, injuries among Bantam-aged players will spike dramatically and it will be far worse than it ever was with PeeWee-aged players. So what will make the difference between success and failure for this measure?
Officials always play a role in the safety of players, and they will continue to play a role here. Training officials to understand the purpose of the rules regarding head contact and checking from behind and how they must be stringently enforced is always important for officiating instructors and mentors. But behind the officials are the regional, provincial, and national bodies which suspends players based on the referee’s calls. In that capacity, governing bodies at all levels must do more across the board in terms of suspensions to impress upon players that illegal body-checks will not be tolerated. At this time, Hockey Canada, BC Hockey, and PCAHA only have automatic one-game suspensions for checks from behind and head contact if a major penalty is assessed; those measures would be laughable if they weren’t terrifying. Not only should minor penalties for checking from behind carry automatic suspensions, but accumulations of minor penalties for head contact warrant suspension, and when major penalties are assessed for either infraction, a three game suspension should be the absolute minimum. But all this talk of punishment is secondary, and its a distraction from the true question of how to reduce injuries caused by body-checking in minor hockey.
The answer, as usual, is coaching. Hockey Canada must create a mandatory coaching curriculum to be directed at players entering the Bantam age group and intending to try out for an “A” team. Proper body checking technique can not be learned by watching hockey on TV, nor can it be learned in one or two on-ice practices. There needs to be a standardized, multi-session program, with both on and off-ice ice instruction that emphasizes not only how to body-check but the purpose of body-checking and where on the ice to make a check. It is only through coaching that we can hope to reduce serious injuries in minor hockey.