As the GTHL season winds down, changes for the 2015-16 season have been voted upon and decided. Within these changes is the ban on body checking from single A hockey. While seemingly non-controversial, the effects of this decision have a greater impact below the surface, both as a trickle-down effect and from the bottom-up. Body checking is quickly being taken out of minor hockey. The game changes when hits aren’t allowed to be thrown. The number of penalties in a game could increase, the strategies change, and the sport is played, coached, and officiated differently. While body checking will most likely never be taken out of more elite levels of hockey, like junior, major junior, and professional levels, taking it out at certain minor levels will have long-term effects on the players who will eventually be playing at those higher levels. The question is now introduced: is body checking a good or bad thing in minor hockey?
The risk of injury caused by body checks is greatly reduced. In a game where body checking is not allowed, fewer players will risk throwing their weight around as a means to get the puck. Keep in mind, however, that this doesn’t mean that players won’t be body checking at all. Some players will push the limits with their bodies and see how much they are able to get away with doing. Players could still be injured by illegal body checks but this number is also greatly reduced. In an event, the risks of injury in anything is reduced when it is taken away, simply put.
The finer points of hockey will be emphasized. This includes passing, skating, shooting, and other forms of checking that don’t involve using the body, like stick and poke checks. If started from a young age, the overall skill of a player has the potential to grow, as body checking and the concept of a “grinder” is almost eliminated immediately. Practices will now focus more on these finer points and more emphasis on creating and developing “skilled players” takes over.
The number of players will grow at different levels of hockey. A major concern for parents, especially for those who did not grow up playing hockey, is the risk involved. A selling feature like safety will definitely promote the sport among concerned parents. As a result, the sport will grow in numbers. Most of this growth will be at the single A level or below. There may be the odd player who excels and decides to allow body checking into his career but for the most part, lower levels of hockey will grow in numbers.
The risk of injuries that aren’t caused by body checking will increase. For example, if a player picked up the puck in his own zone in the corner and was being fore checked by an opponent, he would likely be checked and lose the puck. If the check was performed properly, there would most likely not be an injury and the play would continue. However, when the fore checker has one less option, he is forced to decide, sometimes instantaneously, what to do in order to get the puck that doesn’t involve using his body. In turn, he may need to use his stick or avoid making contact all together. In essence, this puts players at risk of different kinds of injury that are less common in leagues that allow body checking.
Players that rely on their defensive abilities are put at a disadvantage. Typically, players with less speed, agility, and offensive skills are stronger in defensive qualities, which typically include their strength in body checking. While eliminating body checking promotes speed and skill, those who weren’t naturally born with those talents and supplement their value on the ice will see their roles become less valuable in non-checking games. This could mean that these players are no longer good enough for single A hockey and may find themselves playing at lower levels, or not at all.
Officiating non-checking hockey can prove to be more difficult at times. Remember, body contact is allowed. Body checking involves body contact and sometimes the line between the two can be very blurry. As a result, different officials may call games different, based on their own perceptions of the play, the game, and the interpretation of the rule. Coaches are involved in this point as well. The old philosophy of “play the body, not the puck” now has a new meaning. Players are still allowed to play the body, as long as a body check isn’t completed. But now it comes down to the referees and whether or not they believe that a rule was being broken or a good hockey play was attempted.
Proponents of both philosophies have their respective opinions in regards to what affect body checking has on the sport. Supporters of eliminating body checking would argue that other countries, where the focus has been on skills other than checking, will eventually overpower Canadian hockey. At minor hockey tournaments across the country, Canadian teams are shocked to see the skill level of foreign teams who fly across the world to play in Canada, known for being hockey’s number one nation. Even in other Canadian provinces, like Quebec, body checking at the highest levels isn’t even allowed until older age groups than it is in Ontario. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these other countries or provinces exceed Ontario in skill but it brings up an interesting concept that by eliminating it at lower levels and younger age groups, skills could be developed and refined sooner, which in some ways balances the playing field. Canada’s dominance at various levels of hockey, especially minor hockey, is quickly vanishing.
Supporters of body checking would argue that it was and will always be a part of the sport. The game is changed, especially at older age groups, when body checking is eliminated. The culture and definition of the sport is greatly changed when a major component is eliminated. This way of thinking is sometimes difficult to explain, as it involves being a part of a sport, growing up with it, playing it, watching it, and having an appreciation for the things about it that can’t really be justified with stats and numbers. These types of supporters turn to a sport like baseball, which at the roots has changed very little over the last 120 years as far as what players and coaches are allowed to do on the field. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” would collectively summarize the thoughts of this group.
Over the last few seasons, body checking has been on the losing end of the battles within Hockey Canada. First, it was taken out of house league and select hockey. Then, the age group where it was introduced was moved up by two years. Minor hockey in Canada seems to be moving in this direction. Whether one agrees with the decision or not, reality must be accepted and changes need to be implemented, in order to serve the game’s purpose and move forth united as a country.