Eric Rigsby is a beer leaguer in the Old Fat Bald Guys Hockey League, a former college player, and a USA Hockey Level 4 certified coach who has worked with 8U mites for the last three years and coached skills development for over 15 years. He writes from Frederick.
On February 12, House Bill 1424 entitled “Regulation of Youth Sports – Ice Hockey Clubs – Noncontact League” was introduced and read in the Maryland House of Delegates. It was sponsored by delegates Angela Angel (Dem District 25), Joseline Pena-Melnyk (Dem District 21), Ben Barnes (Dem District 21), Barbara Frush, (Dem District 21), Carlos Sanchez (Dem District 47B), and James Tarlau (Dem District 47A); all delegates primarily representing Prince George’s County. The general idea is that any youth ice hockey club operating in Maryland must offer a “non-contact” option for all age groups and skill levels where there is “full contact.”
At first glance, this is outrageous and sounds like the Maryland government is trying to take hitting out of hockey. However, if you’re involved in youth hockey at any level, you will quickly realize why this legislation isn’t necessary and that these matters should continue to be addressed by USA Hockey and its sanctioned clubs.
I reviewed HB 1424 with some of my fellow coaches at the 3rd Annual Mite Beach Bash hockey tournament at the beautiful Carousel Hotel in Ocean City last weekend. We get it. Hockey is a contact sport and we should continue to make sure that it’s a safe and fun (in that order) activity for our kids. After reading through the bill several times and talking to experienced coaches, I think we can make the assumption that the authors mean “no body-checking” when they write “non-contact.” This is a common misconception of the sport of hockey.
Hockey, at every age and skill level, has been, is, and will continue to be a contact sport. Some will say, “USA Hockey outlawed body-checking at age groups below the 14U Bantam level. How is hockey at 12U, 10U, and 8U still considered contact?”
Incidental contact is inherent to the game. Body-checking is a specific tactic to take the puck from your opponent. We coach my son’s 8U mites team to use their bodies to protect the puck and to play opponents stick-on-stick to achieve possession. The result of this will be some contact. Kids will fall down, and that is a good thing. The kids learn to take bumps from the earliest ages on the ice and continue to make plays with the puck.
We do not teach or permit plays against a puck carrier that are targeted body-on-body, otherwise known as body checking. I have sat kids down, sometimes with tears in their eyes, for body-checking. At the same time, I’ll cheer for stick-on-stick plays for the puck that result in body contact.
Watch this great video on what USA Hockey is looking for in legal body contact under non-body checking rules. Then we’ll get back to it.
A few years ago USA Hockey made the body-checking rule I mentioned earlier. If kids are in 12-and-under or younger age groups, no body-checking permitted. There is a ton of scientific research behind this decision, and I’m not going to debate it. We see kids develop hockey skills on or ahead of their age level in environments where they don’t have to worry about another kid hitting them without making a play on the puck. USA Hockey registration numbers have been skyrocketing across the nation because the game is safe and fun again. They are doing the right things.
While USA Hockey took body-checking out of the younger age levels, they have also instructed sanctioned organizations and coaches through the certification program to increase body contact. We want the kids bumping into each other so they learn how to do it safely. We use small-area games to decrease the ice available and speed up the games. We want to see our kids making plays along the wall after taking bumps from the incidental contact inherent in the game. We stress to the kids that they should attack the puck in all areas with their sticks on the ice with hands and arms down.
There is a progression to body contact that leads to legal body-checking in the older age groups. You learn to crawl before you walk. You learn to walk before you run. The same goes for body contact. We want to see the kids taking bumps and becoming confident with contact as they play the puck before they employ body-checking as a tactic.
Given the assumption that the author of HB 1424 likely meant “contact” to equate to “body-checking,” this is not something that should become state law. The governing body of hockey in America, its sanctioned organizations, and its certified coaches, already do a great job of monitoring the game at the youth level. They already provide the safest and most fun environment for kids to learn hockey. USA Hockey has proven that it can implement positive changes.
The Maryland House of Delegates should probably consult the national governing body of hockey in America before moving forward with HB 1424.
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