No need for checking at age nine

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

There's no need to allow bodychecking in minor hockey before the age of 14.

Traditionalists will never agree, of course. They believe you have to teach players as young as nine how to deliver and receive a check. They believe it will prepare them for junior or the National Hockey League.

As for the other 99.3 per cent of players who never play professional or junior, they'll be better for the experience of getting slammed into the boards or taking a shoulder to the chest. More manly in a hockey sort of way.

Bodychecking is an integral part of the game. That's the line used by those who want to sell the idea it be allowed with kids as young as nine.

But it's not as integral as some would say. At least not integral enough to risk injury to young players and not integral enough to prevent them from either playing or developing their skills.

Bodychecking has undergone a metamorphosis over the years. The old-fashioned solid, open-ice checks gave way to slamming players unmercifully into the boards, using just about any part of the body. Now when you see a good clean bodycheck, it leaves you gasping because it happens so rarely.

The issue causes ongoing debate. A study by orthopedic surgeon Andrew Howard of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto showed nearly twice as many injuries among players in Ontario, where bodychecking is allowed for children as young as nine, compared to Quebec, where it is forbidden up to 14.

So what is the greater good? Teaching kids from Day 1 how to use the body on an opponent? Or waiting until age 14 and allowing kids of all sizes and skill levels to learn how to pass, shoot and skate rather than looking to see who is going to nail them?

It seems like a simple choice. A 10-year-old develops his skills at a young age. He's still growing into his body. He's learning to take a pass, make a pass, shoot, stickhandle and skate. He has enough trouble controlling the puck. He may still be a little shy about playing the game.

Now, not only does he have to worry about all those things, he also has to worry about someone taking a run at him. And he's never sure whether the guy who is about to hit him just wants to rub him out along the boards or make him part of the boards.

So he takes a hit and goes down awkwardly. Maybe nothing happens. Maybe he just gets bruised. Maybe he sprains an ankle. Or maybe he gets a blow to his head. He certainly doesn't get a chance to complete his pass or his shot and he no longer gets a chance to do any skating. He's busy looking around for the next hit.

Maybe next week he decides he doesn't want to play. Or he'd rather play house league. We never find out if he could have been the next Martin St. Louis or Vincent Lecavalier or Joe Sakic.

Fast-forward to when the kid is 14. He's been playing for five years. He's stronger on his skates, doesn't have to look down to carry the puck. His body is bigger and stronger and he's developed his skills. Now if a check comes his way, he's able to avoid it or, if he is hit, he's able to absorb it. He's not as shy about getting hit.

No one is suggesting body contact be eliminated. As players get older, you have to use the body to relieve them of the puck, otherwise it's a game of keepaway.

There's nothing wrong with teaching young players how to squeeze people out of the play, how to skate in front of a player so they can't move forward with the puck.

For older hockey fans, former Toronto Maple Leaf centre Dave Keon was one of the smallest players in the game, yet he used his body almost like a pillow, smothering the opposition.

But allowing full contact at all ages is dangerous. Proponents of bodychecking say they can teach the proper way to check. But they can't control how a player hits and what results from it.


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