I don’t want to be confused with somebody who has gone “wimpish” on the sport of hockey. I think we’ve had a lot of “soccer mom” mentality creeping into our game, and I know much of it is based in a very real concern for concussions and other types of injuries. With that said, I don’t want to take it too far.
I was honored to join USA Hockey’s subcommittee on body checking and feel that I have a broad background that allows me to bring something to the table on this important topic.
The subcommittee consisted of some very educated individuals who care deeply about the game. Nobody was getting paid or had a hidden agenda. Some were adamantly opposed to changing the rules on checking and others were fully supportive of the change. That was the starting point for the dialogue that followed.
Information was presented from many different points of view. Some focused on the competitive and skill development side while others came at it from a physiological perspective. As a parent, I listened with great interest as Dr. Michael Stuart presented information that indicated that kids under the age of 11 or even 12 were more susceptible to concussions, and also that the impact of those concussions could last for extended periods of time.
Clearly, kids at that age are not developed physically enough to enter into this kind of contact without real jeopardy to their health. That was a no brainer to begin with, but it was more than that.
The majority of us who sat on the subcommittee are not doctors and are not in a position to discuss the physiological impact checking has on the game. But it was up to us to talk about how it impacted the skill development of our young players at such a pivotal point in their lives.
As much as I love the rough nature of the game, you have to learn how to play the game first. Common sense would dictate that if you can’t skate, you can’t play. Our biggest and most physical kids also need to have the skills to be able to play at a higher level. Let them become familiar with how to make a backhand pass and play in a two-on-one situation. This is critical in order to achieve continued success and upward movement in the game of hockey.
I have my own kids. I don’t want to see them get hurt; I want them to have a good time. I want to see body contact and body positioning, but what I really want to see is kids playing the game the right way. Our focus needs to be on developing the foundation that will serve kids for as long as they play the game. Our rush to introduce physical play at a young age closes that window of opportunity.
When we get kids at 11 and 12 years of age, some of them have vast disparities in height and weight and even degrees of passion about the sport. Some of them can become overwhelmed when it comes to the physical play. In our rush to introduce checking we run the risk of losing kids who are on the bubble and may not have developed their bodies to the point where they can effectively give and take a check.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the physical part of the game, but I believe the introduction of physical play into the game should come at a deliberate pace. It starts with teaching body contact — rubbing, bumping, edging out and gaining proper positioning on an opponent — rather than focusing on hard hits.
And when we do introduce checking, we need to teach players to check hard and check clean. No rational person or player wants to leave the rink knowing that he just broke someone’s jaw or he gave a guy a concussion that might alter his life. Nobody wants to live with that.
I dread the day when we take out the physical element of the game because we are worried about safety issues. If you’re too worried, don’t play. There’s an element of risk in a lot of things we choose to do — rock climbing, skiing, cycling — and hockey is no exception. Still, we owe it to our kids and we owe it to the game to make it as safe as possible.
Even at the youngest age levels, there will always be races for loose pucks and battles in the corner and in front of the net. Those one-on-one battles are what make hockey such a great game to play. The game will still be physical, it will still be fast and it will still be fun. It will also be safer.
This rule change proposal isn’t about checking being removed; it’s about checking being improved. And for the good of our sport, this checking model needs to be adopted when it comes up for a vote.
Mike Milbury has been involved in hockey for more than 50 years. He played collegiate hockey at Colgate University and went on to a 12-year NHL career with the Boston Bruins. After retiring as a player, Milbury went on to serve as head coach with the Bruins and New York Islanders before taking over the role as the Islanders general manager. He is currently working as a commentator for NESN, Hockey Night in Canada and NBC’s weekly hockey broadcast. He has six children and is currently an assistant coach with his son’s Peewee team. He is also a valued member of the USA Hockey Checking Subcommittee.