While non-checking hockey is usually the norm, everyone knows that some contact is inevitable
By Max Tabachnick
Regardless of the level you play at, hockey hurts. Even non-checking hockey can be painful. Both pick-up and rec hockey are oftentimes comprised of players of various skill levels, matching ex-college athletes with players who take up the sport later on in life.
Those who grew up playing hockey are probably used to some amount of bumping and shoving, if not full on cage-rattling, wind-knocked-out-of-you contact. They can also probably tell you that making the transition from a game so deeply ingrained with serious physicality to one that proscribes checking can be a long struggle with the occasional relapse. After all, varsity and higher levels of hockey is all about taking the body—in the corners, on the point, along the boards, and in front of the net.
While rec hockey is generally of the non-checking hockey variety, anyone familiar with the game knows that contact is inevitable. Though hits are bound to happen, you can minimize contact and the hurting that ensues on both yourself and your opponent by tweaking your play to avoid injury.
Here’s what you can do to keep yourself out of trouble:
Look around. Your head should be scanning the ice both when you’re in possession of the puck and when you are not. Whether you’re in position to make a play or actually carrying the puck, knowing who is around you is paramount to avoiding unwanted body contact in non-checking hockey. When you have control of the puck, your first move should be to quickly scan your periphery before looking up-ice for an open player.
Don’t look down. It’s understandable that players that are new to hockey have some trouble mastering the many skills required to effectively skate and stick handle under the pressure of a game setting. Nonetheless, try your hardest to take a quick look around the ice. This undoubtedly will help you to not only identify nearby defenders (along with any teammates who may be playing out of position), but also to give you a better sense of what your next move should be.
Keep the puck moving. One way to protect yourself, your teammates, and your (presumably) friendly opponents from injury is to keep the puck moving. Finding an open man and making a strong pass up-ice is a surefire way to keep defenders from playing the body.
Ideally, this process should begin before you even gain control of the puck. Sometimes intuition kicks in and walks you through the play, though this is not always the case. When you get the puck, look to see who’s in the best position to generate an offensive rush; then, put the puck hard on their stick. Quick puck movement is one of the simplest ways of keeping both defending players—and ice packs—off your back.
Take the hit. If contact is inevitable, stay as low to the ice as you can. Bend your knees, square your shoulders, and remain alert. You don’t want to hurt anyone out there, including yourself. When taking a hit up against the boards, stay low and get as close to the boards as possible. This will absorb the hit and minimize the chances of you and/or your opponent twisting and toppling onto your backs. If your opponent ends up on the ice, take the nice-guy approach: chances are some empathy will lessen animosity from opposing players—not to mention presenting yourself in a more favorable light to onlooking referees.
Max Tabachnick played high school varsity hockey, and both gave and received his fair share of hits. He now plays in a non-checking hockey league.