A Giant Leap For Young Players: Youth Checking

Youth Hockey Programs Look To Make A Safe And Smooth Transition From Squirts To Peewees For Players And Parents

It’s a jungle out there, especially when you’re a 10-year-old hockey player on the cusp of playing Peewee hockey. There are so many things to think about before you reach that all-important age when checking is first introduced into the game.

And imagine what it’s like for mom and dad as they watch from the bleachers the first time their son gets his first taste of full-contact hockey. How will the pint-sized player respond when he’s crunched by some overgrown Peewee player who looks like he drove himself to the rink? How will mom and dad deal with it as they watch helplessly from the other side of the glass?

Monica Buller is team manager of the Peewee AA Junior Tigers in Colorado Springs. While she grew up around hockey and is used to all of the usual happenings on the ice, she still admits that her heart still flutters when her son goes into the corners after a puck.

“I’m not too excited about my baby getting hit, but it is part of the game,” she says.

Buller’s husband, James also grew up with the game. He sees the fear involved with checking as a natural reaction to a new experience.

“They are all keen about hitting, until they realize that they get hit back,” he laughs.

There’s no doubt that the transition from Squirt to Peewee hockey can be an emotionally and physically tumultuous time for both players and their parents. But every Squirt-aged player and his parents can take comfort, though, in the fact that they are not alone in this journey into the unknown. There is a roadmap in place to help everyone involved navigate through this uncharted territory and make a smooth and safe transition to the next level of hockey.

Checking is a merely tool, a means to produce results within the game, and not an arbitrary flash of violence put in place for spectator enjoyment. The goal of a check is to separate the opponent from the puck, and not from consciousness.

“You’re not out there to hurt anybody, you’re just trying to create time and space between you and the opponent,” says Mark Grignano, head coach of the Junior Tigers Squirt B team.

Coaches across the board agree that education and preparation are integral factors in the successful transition to body contact hockey.

“You can’t just throw them in there on the first day,” says Mike Taylor, an assistant coach of the Colorado Springs Junior Tigers Squirt B team.

The young players need to be prepared for the challenges that go along with the higher level of playing.

“More than anything, it is teaching them how to take a hit,” says Pete Geronazzo, a local Peewee AA coach who was an All-American at Colorado College in 1996.

At the beginning of each season, Geronazzo teaches his players not only how to deliver, but also to receive a check. He stresses the idea that the point is to separate the puck, not to “lay somebody out.”

The training should actually begin at the Squirt level, where coaches teach players about angling and body positioning. Then, by the time they reach Peewees, checking is only that little bump at the end of the play.

USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program has also developed tools to assist coaches through this stage in the hockey player’s career. From literature to interactive videos to the new coaching workshop, “Checking the RIGHT Way for Youth Hockey,” the CEP is doing everything it can to keep coaches enlightened and players safe.

Kevin Keenan, the president of the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association, teaches checking clinics during the summer to help players prepare for their first foray into the physical world of hockey. Players are taught the basic principles of checking and other body contact situations, such as how to take a check without getting hurt. More importantly,

Keenan teaches players never to check from behind..

While Keenan admits that nobody is going to learn everything about checking in a three-day clinic, they will get the basics. “It is then the coaches’ responsibility to reinforce those ideals,” he says.

Here’s a secret, though. It seems that Squirt-aged players aren’t nearly as nervous about checking as their parents may be. Hayden Perea is looking forward to a faster-paced game where he can grow as a player.

J.P. Nolette has been waiting a long time to be able to check. When he makes the move to Peewee next season, he won’t be afraid to be on the receiving end, either. His plan is simply to get faster and make sure that nobody can catch him.

Travis Work and Derek Hammer are both excited just to keep playing their favorite game next year, even if there is some fear of “getting leveled.”  But they know that they will be fine if they just keep their heads up.

All of these kids look positively to the challenge of more contact in their sport. In fact, most are excited for the chance to use checking as a tool to be a better player. Which is the whole point anyway.

Still, all the education and pep talks are all fine and dandy, but the fact remains that there is a drop off of kids reaching the Peewee level. So what is the cause of this drop? Is body contact too much for some players to handle? Is fear stifling the development of some of our young hockey players? Or can mom and dad simply not take the anxiety of watching while their little ones are bounced around the boards like ping pong balls?

Five Tips For Parents

• Set a positive example
• Learn what constitutes a clean hit and stress it to your child
• Reward and encourage clean play
• Communicate with coaching staff to see what you can do to help your player
• Encourage your player to participate in a checking clinic

Five Tips For Players

• Maintain a low center of gravity along the boards
• Use checking as a means of gaining possession of the puck, not to intimidate an opponent
• Take the proper angle into the boards and make a quick get-away
• Respect your opponent, and NEVER check from behind
• Heads up, don’t duck

No one really knows why there is such a drop off at the Peewee level. Perhaps the drop is the result of athletes who play multiple sports deciding to focus on something other than hockey.

Take solace, though, in numbers. They have shown in recent studies that the occurrence of injuries in post-checking hockey is only marginally higher than non-checking. The vast majority of injuries in youth hockey occur as a result of accidental collision.

Still, the most experienced hockey people say that it’s never easy watching their little tike get his first taste of physical contact.

Mike Sullivan’s day job may be as assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he is still a hockey parent and a fan of the game.

Early on in his son’s playing career, Sullivan wondered if waiting to introduce contact until Peewees was helping or hurting his development. After weighing the on pros and cons, Sullivan’s son participated in both USA Hockey-sanctioned leagues and non-sanctioned leagues, which promote checking even earlier. After seeing first hand the differences in development, he is on board with USA Hockey’s timetable to introduce checking into youth hockey.

“It is difficult for them to acquire skills when they are too worried about getting hit,” he says. “Non-contact [youth hockey] allows them the opportunity to acquire those skills in a safe environment.”

Sullivan says that parents need to understand that hockey by nature is confrontational, that there is a physical nature to the game. But also, players need leadership from their coaches to not teach intimidation as a tactic to win, but to teach skills for separating the puck.

The fear involved in checking as unavoidable, Sullivan says, but adds that it’s the responsibility of parents and coaches to manage that fear. If contact is introduced as a function of the game, and confidence is built with other basic skills, the transition can go smoothly.

“Look at youth hockey in terms of developing the athlete,” Sullivan says. “We want gritty players, but we want skilled players. It’s a delicate balance.”



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