Check It Out

Checking Clinics Help Players Ease Into Physical Play While Putting Parents Minds At Ease
Jessi Pierce

Virginia Sentman’s son, Andrew, is bigger than an average 12-year-old. She calls him her “gentle giant.” But even a giant’s bravado can be tested when it comes to making the move from Peewees to Bantams, where the speed and physical style of play rises with testosterone levels.

That’s why she enrolled Andrew in one of four checking clinics hosted by Minnesota Hockey this past fall.

“I wanted this [clinic] to alleviate some of the pressure and nerves he was feeling heading into the season,” says the Woodbury, Minn., mother of two. “At one point he wasn’t even sure if he even wanted to play Bantams he was so nervous. I thought this would be a good idea to help calm him down and keep him playing.”

It’s been five years since USA Hockey’s board of directors  approved the Progressive Checking Skill Development Program, which removed legal body checking from Peewee (11- and 12-year-olds) games and instead beginning in-game body checking at the Bantam (13- and 14-year-old) age level. Since then, injuries and concussions have been on a steady decline. Players are now focused on skill development instead of making the “big hit.”

And while the removal was met with some opposition from hockey loyalists who thought checking was a significant part of the Peewee game, a growing amount of data proves that the right decision was made. 

Now, the focus has shifted to the progressive part of that body-checking rule.  

“USA Hockey has talked about the idea of body contact and body checking and the importance of players and parents learning the proper way to do both at every level. That’s what these clinics are designed to do; they reinforce that concept that USA Hockey established [five] years ago,” says Wes Bolin, Woodbury boys’ varsity hockey head coach and American Development Model coordinator for Minnesota Hockey. 

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.

“[It’s] that gradual step that kind of takes place and you build on that as a player,” Bolin says. “It’s not uncommon you have Peewees ready to body check as well and that’s what we want. For those that aren’t ready to enter Bantams and full body checking we offer these clinics.” 

Bolin and a team of instructors and ADM regional managers began offering checking clinics throughout Minnesota in the fall of 2015. ADM regional manager Roger Grillo has been doing the same up and down the east coast.           

Clinic sessions vary in length from one to three hours and relocate to arenas where the hockey population is high. At rinks in places like Providence, R.I., Duluth, Minn., and beyond, Peewee and Bantam players are split up into groups based on size and hockey ability. From there, a station-based practice ensues, with one to three high school, Bantam or even college coaches assigned to instruct each group of eager players. There, players work on body positioning, angling and mirroring— all main points of emphasis.

“The clinic is designed for players and coaches to learn the techniques and drills for how to give a check and how to take a check,” Grillo says. “Once the kids do move on, or if they already have moved on [to Bantams], it’s important that they’re doing things correctly to lessen the chances for injury and also to break down some of the barriers that some of the kids have once they do go into full body checking—which can be pretty intimidating.”

Like Andrew Sentman, plenty of other players at the Minnesota Hockey checking clinic had some trepidation about heading into their first Bantam season.

Rosemount Youth Hockey Bantam Jakob Alen says he was already getting “banged up a little bit” in Peewees. He didn’t want that nervous trend to continue into Bantams.

“We have kids who are very reserved because they lack confidence,” explains two-time Olympian and current ADM regional manager Guy Gosselin. “If they don’t have that [confidence] out on the ice, they don’t want to be around hockey.

“If we can teach them how to not get into certain situations out on the ice and teach them proper mechanics and stability on the ice, that gives them confidence and helps keep them safe.” 

In each checking clinic, safety is the top priority, with the first half-hour centered on the importance of “Heads Up, Don’t Duck” and on the safest way to not only check, but how to take a check. USA Hockey research shows that the ability to anticipate being hit is 50 percent of avoiding injury.

“It’s fun, we’re learning how to stay safe out there and not get hurt,” says Vinny Laurienzo, a second-year Peewee with Eastview Youth Hockey Association. “We’re learning to keep our head up so you don’t get knocked into the boards and get a concussion and miss a lot of hockey.”

No one wants to miss hockey. Bolin says with the help of these clinics, you lessen the chance of that happening. He anticipates more clinics taking place in the future and hopes more coaches and parents buy into the idea across the nation. As he sees it, “we’re only improving player development and creating a better hockey player.”

 “I think people are warming up to the idea that we no longer have a football mentality on the ice,” Bolin says. “We have more a soccer mentality and more of a puck possession type game—that’s the way it’s being played at the elite level today.

“When you understand that USA Hockey is trying to teach body contact at a younger age in order to teach the components of body checking in a supervised manner at a Peewee level before they implement it in the full-game situations at a Bantam level, it makes total sense.”

Jessi Pierce is an editor and writer with Touchpoint Media in Minneapolis.



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