Over the course of their combined careers, Dallas Drake and Doug Zmolek played in nearly 1,500 games in the National Hockey League.
Along the way, they played for countless coaches who helped to shape their games as they progressed from youth hockey, through the college ranks and into the NHL. And now that they’ve retired, it’s time for them to give back to the game and help the next generation of young hockey players.
Despite growing up thousand of miles apart, Drake in Trail, British Columbia, and Zmolek in Rochester, Minn., both credit their rise to the highest levels of the game to coaches who nurtured their skill development rather than the physical aspects of their games.
Still, when it came time to play in the NHL, both earned reputations are hard-nosed players – Drake, as a tenacious checker, and Zmolek, a strong and steady defensemen.
So when USA Hockey’s board of directors passed the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program at its 2011 Annual Congress, both men knew it was the right thing to do for their own kids and youth players around the country.
“The checking had gotten out of control,” Zmolek, who coaches his son, William's team in Rochester, wrote in an email to USA Hockey.
“With body checking taken out, its more about good angles and gap control. The refs still let them play through the hands and bump an opposing player, but the running around, hammering players is gone.
“I find the game is a little faster, but the biggest change with the no checking has been that there's a lot more freedom on the ice.”
“Today’s Peewee game is about who skates better, who is able to maintain good gap [control], who is better at angling an offensive scoring chance into a non-scoring chance.
“I hope that the skating skills and the mind-set [the proper way to position your body to check] they are learning at Peewee will carry into to the older levels of play.”
The decision to delay the start of legal body checking was designed to enhance skill development consistent with the American Development Model and its long-term athlete development principles. An important byproduct is to reduce the potential risk of injury and make the game safer.
It encourages more body contact in younger age levels by providing more training and support for coaches and officials so that by the time a player reaches Bantams he is ready for legal body checking.
Not everyone was in favor of the change when the rule was adopted, but the ranks of detractors has dwindled dramatically as the season progressed and parents and coaches saw how much fun their young players were having now that they no longer played in fear as they carry the puck through the center of the ice.
“I find the game is a little faster, but the biggest change with the no checking has been that there’s a lot more freedom on the ice,” said Drake, whose son, Jakson, is now a Bantam and his daughter, Delaney, is a third-year Peewee.
“There’s nobody going out of their way to hit somebody. I just think it allows kids to do things with the puck that normally they wouldn’t do. In years past, kids were more concerned about being hit or finishing their check, and now they’re more concerned about how they’re going to get the puck back without running someone through the boards.”
The key component of the program is not that checking has been delayed until Bantams, it’s for coaches to begin teaching the important elements of body contact, positioning and angling at younger age levels, so that when players do reach Bantams they are ready to give and take a check.
“Checking is about learning how to take away time and space, and not running an opponent over,” said Roger Grillo, ADM regional manager for New England.
“We strongly encourage coaches at all levels of the game to teach the correct concepts to allow for a safer and more productive form of body contact and checking, starting at Mites. That is at the core of the rule change.”
Drake said he has adapted new drills into his practice plans that will lay the foundation for his players to be successful once they make the leap to the Bantam ranks.
“I still encourage kids to bump into one another, but the first thing we teach is stick on the puck and taking the proper angles, especially the defensemen in the defensive zone,” said Drake, who won an NCAA title at Northern Michigan University and a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings.
“We emphasize that a lot, especially early in the year, that if you just keep your stick on his stick it makes the game a lot easier.”
Still, based on comments on USA Hockey Magazine’s Facebook page, there are a number of detractors who have their doubts that this is the right thing to do, but those in the know are confident that over time the critics will become converts and it will be the kids who benefit by playing a faster, safer and more fun game.
“Who knows, maybe this will bring back checking the way it was suppose to be,” Zmolek said. “Think of the great skating skills our kids have the potential to develop if they have to learn to control another player by using correct body positioning.
“I think [USA Hockey is] on the right track. All I know is that it’s a hell of a lot more pleasant going to the rink this season.”