While checking is usually frowned upon in rec hockey, everyone knows that some body contact is inevitable
By Max Tabachnick & Evan Tabachnick
(Previously published; contains updated information)
When it comes to body contact, almost every rec hockey league for those 18 and over is most often branded a non-checking league. Sure, you’ll hear the moans and groans from high school blowhards and newcomers attracted to the game for its bone-crushing hits. The truth is, the vast majority of rec hockey players are in it for the less physical aspects of the game: the workout of a good skate, along with the scoring, passing, teamwork and, okay, maybe a little “mixing it up” in front of the net. Playing the body offers a way to take control without the actual hit.
Regardless of the level you play at, body contact is inevitable. Even non-checking hockey can be painful; hockey hurts, plain and simple. 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 some form of body contact—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 body 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.
Just about every confrontation is 90% verbal (and 100% mental!) and rarely makes it past a few shoves. And when the physicality becomes noticeable in a game—from intentional body checking, to fighting, to general chippiness (slashing, hacking, etc.)—the familiar “we have to get up for work in the morning” argument inevitably comes up. The reason is simply that this behavior is really just contrary to the spirit of recreational hockey, which for all intents and purposes is hockey is for fun.
Although the act of lining up a player for a hit is exactly what puts the “checking” in a non-checking league, a brief discussion on the nature of body checking is warranted. By definition, body checking in hockey is the act of using one’s body to separate an opponent from the puck. When executed without collision, “body checking,” in the purest sense here, is legal in recreational leagues. (Disclaimer: using this definition in an argument with a referee to get out of a penalty will most likely result in additional penalty minutes!)
Perhaps we should get into more colloquial terms, as the definition above could get you in trouble in most circles. The act to which we’re referring is more commonly known as “playing the body” and is a common tactic for defensemen. Again, we’re not talking about leading into a collision with the shoulder and flattening your oncoming opponent. Rather, this is “stepping in” and providing a bit of contact, matching your speed with your opponent’s, and then using your body to act as a wedge to distance their body and the puck for a takeaway.
Here’s what you can do to keep yourself out of trouble:
Look around. Your eyes 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.
Heads up! 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 resulting from body contact is to keep the puck moving. Finding an open player 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 body 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 watchful referees.
The Bottom Line: Rarely will you encounter whining or protest when this move is properly executed, and you’ll almost never see a penalty called. This is because referees and all experienced players know that playing the body is an integral part of the game of hockey. When a player uses his/her body to deliver a hit with the intent of knocking an opponent onto the ice or into the boards, this is an act of malice and against the spirit of recreational hockey. However, playing the body as a means of gaining possession of the puck, with the puck being the focus of the play, will forever exist as an untouchable part of the game at all levels, checking or non-checking.
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. Evan Tabachnick plays in two leagues year round.
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