There is perhaps no greater rite of passage in a youth hockey player’s career than his or her entrance into a competitive category which permits body checking. It is a period of excitement for many players who feel that they are finally playing “real hockey” which looks (in their opinion) like the collegiate and professional games that they see on TV. Many players and parents also enter this period with feelings of fear and trepidation brought on by the increased intensity of play and the possibility of injury that comes with full body checking. Rather than entering this important transitional period in a player’s career with uninformed exuberance or with maladaptive fear and hesitation, players and parents should approach body checking with rational thought and a scientific game plan aimed at preparing the player to perform at a high level in body checking categories of play.
Remember, the goal is not to become an on-ice wrecking ball, hitting anything that moves, nor is the goal to merely survive while avoiding contact at all costs. The goal is to increase performance! This means following a program which develops the physical, technical and tactical skills of checking in order to help that player play with composure and confidence while using body checking to reestablish puck possession for his or team.
Skating for Checking
Full body checking is not permitted in lower levels of hockey in order to allow players time to acquire the fundamental skills which form the basis of any good body check. Paramount among these skills is skating. Many players think that a good body check comes from the upper body. They come in with their elbows or hands up, or they rotate their trunks excessively in order to finish the check. This technique is incorrect. Good checkers are good skaters and good checks start from the feet up. Some key skating skills for effectively delivering (and even more importantly, receiving) a body check are listed below:
- Lateral Agility: Most side checks occur in the frontal plane. This means that force is generated by pushing off from one side to the other (think a lateral lunge as opposed to a standard lunge; or think a skating stride as opposed to standard running technique). Players who cannot effectively execute skating skills like a stop-and-start are unlikely to be able to generate (or absorb) force in this plane of motion and are likely to demonstrate lower levels of performance when it comes to delivering and receiving side checks. “Mirroring” drills (such as the one in the video below) can be a good way to develop this skill in response to a game-realistic stimulus (the other player). Keep in mind, however, that such drills are very metabolically demanding and will require long rest intervals to ensure quality work.
The frontal plane is illustrated in the picture below. I would like to add a short sidebar here to help the reader better understand this diagram and how it can help us categorize different types of movement: a movement is in a given plane if it is PARALLEL to that plane (or to the colored rectangle in the picture which illustrates that plane). EG, a rotational movement such as a slap shot would be in the transverse plane, a side-to-side movement such as a lateral lunge or side check would be in the frontal plane, and a back-to-front movement such as a bench press, push up or cross check would be in the sagittal plane. (Image Credit: National Academy of Sports Medicine)
- Backward Lateral Agility: A hip check is basically an exaggerated C-cut which throws a player’s hip into the skating lane of an oncoming opponent. This requires tremendous backward skating skills, lateral agility and timing. The photo below illustrates the moment of impact during a hip check. Notice the player in the white jersey’s extended right foot. He has just executed a strong C-cut with this foot to put himself into this position. The arrow illustrates the path his foot has taken. (Photo Credit: USA Hockey)
- Mirroring: A player who is unable to mirror the movements of an opponent cannot place himself in an appropriate position to deliver a body check. The ability to mirror an evasive opponent using skating skills such as stops/starts, crossovers, tight turns and transitions is imperative for high quality defensive checking.
- Balance: Players who are not strong on their edges and cannot balance on one foot have a very difficult time maintaining puck possession through contact and are most at risk when receiving a check in the act of shooting the puck. If you have ever seen a rushing forward take a shot at the top of the circle, receive contact from a defender, get knocked off balance and slide violently into the end boards (primarily due to his own momentum) you can appreciate the importance of a player’s ability to balance on one foot.
- Weight Transfer: If you are delivering a check with your left shoulder, you have to drive your right foot into the ice in order to extend that opposite-side leg. Similarly, players who are receiving a check must be able to load their outside (ie, the side opposite from the contact) foot and present a flat surface to the boards in which the ankle, knee, hip and shoulder are all in line. Players who cannot load and transfer weight appropriately run the risk of exposing a single joint to the wall at the moment of impact and increase their risk for injury (this is how you separate a shoulder or break a collar bone).
Angling and Gap Control
A high-performance body check starts well before any physical contact between players is made. It starts with the checker’s ability to use timing and angling (ie, a particular trajectory or skating path) so that contact will occur at just the right time. This is a skill that can be developed from a player’s earliest involvement in the game.
- Angling: is about taking away a portion of the ice and inviting your opponent to go to another area. Once he has gone in the direction you want him to go, you slowly close the distance between the two of you until he has nowhere to go and contact is inevitable. This is legal and highly effective at non-body-checking levels of hockey. The only difference is now you are finishing with either a side check, hip check or front check, while at peewees and younger you would finish with a stick check or controlled body contact.
- Gap Control: is controlling the amount of space between you and an opponent (most often while you are skating backwards and he is skating forwards). Common mistakes include backing up too far (even into your own goalie) and giving you opponent too much ice to work with in front of you. The other common mistake is trying to make contact too early and allowing the opponent to cut back or beat you wide. Effective gap control at non-check levels usually ends with the defender executing a skillful stick check or simply blocking the puck carrier’s lane to the net. The only thing that is new at body-checking levels is that you can finish with a front check (usually when an opponent tries to cut to the middle) or a hip check (usually when an opponent tries to beat you wide).
A quality stick check can prevent the need for any further physical contact when a player is trying to take back puck possession. This is true from U8 hockey all the way to the NHL. While many observers may think that stick checking is simply whacking another player’s stick in a way that is hard enough to get the puck back, but not so hard that it draws a slashing penalty from the referee, this line of thinking is largely inaccurate. Stick checking is like any other skill: it requires practice and precise technical execution, it can and should be coached with an eye for these technical details, it can be subdivided or broken down into a variety of different sub-skills and it can be developed and improved with the right kind of practice. Below, I have outlined a variety of different types of stick check and some basics of their execution:
- Lift Check: This is one of the most commonly used stick checks and is often used when both you and the opponent are skating forward. Lower your bottom hand and lift the opponent’s stick with a quick upward motion before taking the puck. The common mistake players make here is to lift their sticks straight up (perpendicular to the ice). This often causes the stick to ride up onto the opponent’s hands and may result in a hooking penalty. Instead, the direction of the stick lift should be perpendicular to the opponent’s stick as diagrammed below.
- Tap Check: A tap check is less commonly used, but can be effective when the opponent has the puck exposed on the same side of the blade as you. Simply use your stick blade to tap the opponent’s stick just above the blade to move it back and away from the puck (follow the direction of the arrow in the picture below) to create enough separation for you to reestablish puck possession. Be careful not to take a big swing so that you don’t take a slashing penalty. (Photo Credit: USA Hockey)
- Poke Check: This stick check is often used on 1v1 rushes with the defender skating backward. Keep the stick in one hand (the top hand) with your elbow tucked close to your body. Using your peripheral vision (keeping your eyes mainly focused on the opponent’s trunk), extend the arm forward and poke the stick blade into the puck. Do not lunge at the puck or over rotate your shoulders when extending the arm. The key is being patient and waiting for the opponent to move the puck within striking distance.
- Sweep Check: Similar to poke checks in that they are most often used by defenders who are skating backward in a 1v1 situation against a forward-skating opponent. Sweep your stick in a semi-circle in front of your body while staying balanced and not over-rotating the shoulders. The key here is similar to that for the poke check: be patient and don’t lunge, wait for the opponent to bring the puck to you.
- Press Check: This stick check is often used by a backchecker who is closing on an opponent from behind. Hold your stick with a wide grip and place your stick shaft over the opponent’s stick shaft and apply body weight. The opponent’s stick should slide backward away from the puck, allowing you to reestablish puck possession. Be careful though, do not take a big wind up before you bring the stick down as this type of stick check can easily become a slashing penalty when applied un-skillfully. Notice in the pictures below how the downward motion of the orange stick causes the silver stick to move back and away from the puck. Also, note the principal point of contact between the sticks (circled in yellow). (Photo Credit: USA Hockey)
- Pry Check: This stick check is used when an opponent has frozen the puck along the boards in order to protect it or kill time. Approach the opponent from your strong side (the left side for righties and the right side for lefties) and wedge your stick in between the opponent’s shin guards and the boards so that your blade lays flat on the ice on the other side. Using a quick motion, pry the opponent off the wall and take the puck.
Types of Checks and the Importance of Progression
There are three main types of body check. The side check, the hip check and the front check.
- Side Check: The most commonly used check, it is most often executed while both players are skating forward. Try to place your shoulder in front of the opponent’s shoulder and your hip behind his hip so that you can seal him on the boards. Drive with your opposite-side foot for power. EG, if you are making contact with your LEFT shoulder, you should push into the check with your RIGHT foot. Keep your elbow tucked and your stick on the ice. When receiving and delivering the check, you should try to make contact with your joints in line (ie, a flat surface) so that force is distributed evenly between shoulder, arm and hip. Making one joint (EG, an elbow) the sole point of contact with an opponent will likely get you a penalty and making one joint the sole point of contact with the boards will likely get you injured.
- Hip Check: These are executed either when you are skating backwards and an opponent tries to beat you wide or when you are pinching in the offensive zone on a winger who has just received a breakout pass. Either way, the basic technique is the same. Use your opposite-side foot to carve a powerful C-cut in order to swing your body 90 degrees (EG, if you are going to make contact with your left hip, it is your right foot that should execute the C-cut). Stay low and try to make contact with the lower trunk of your opponent. Don’t go too low as this can result in a clipping penalty and potential injury to your opponent. The picture below shows a hip check on the boards and one in open ice. I have added an arrow to show the path of the player’s right foot before executing the check. (Photo Credit: USA Hockey)
- Front Check: This is the least commonly used check, but it is effective when standing up an opponent at a line or when an opponent tries to cut back. The reverse front check can also be used when you are the puck carrier and you are trying to muscle through a defender. Peter Forsberg was the master of this type of reverse front check. Below is a video example of Forsberg using skillfull execution of the check to maintain puck possession.The front check is executed by aiming the top of your shoulder for just under the opponent’s shoulder pad, drive with the opposite-side foot to generate power. Be sure to look straight ahead and keep your head out of the way of the opponent’s shoulder.
As you can see from even these simple descriptions, there is a lot of technical detail to executing an effective body check. Players need to be coached on these techniques and then allowed to repeat them in a slow and controlled manner. As players demonstrate proficiency, the coach can gradually allow them to increase the speed of the drill or the force of the check. In addition, players can eventually be progressed into more complex checking drills. The point, however, is that players need to progress slowly in order to master these skills. Simply throwing them into a drill and saying “hit him” will only build bad habits and limit a player’s ability to perform at a high level in games.
Coaches and players should not take the approach, “we are scared of what might happen if someone gets hit” or worse, “we’re going to show how tough we are by hitting as hard as we can.” The mentality should be the same as though it were a powerskating clinic: “we are here to develop a skill by teaching players techniques and letting them gradually build mastery through focused repetition, correction from coaches and linear progression from simple skills to more complex ones.”
Below is a video lesson from USA Hockey that coaches can implement (or well supervised players can even implement at home) to help build checking skills off-ice. This controlled environment (which does not require the increased stability demands of doing the drills on ice) allows players to build their checking skills progressively, getting a high number of quality repetitions that they may not be able to get at practice due to limited ice availability. (The techno music in the video is just a bonus!)
Small Area Games
The best way to develop skills that actually transfer to real hockey games is through the use of small area games. These games provide players with game-realistic situations in which they are making real decisions, really competing, and really having fun. By shrinking the space and manipulating the rules of each game, we can increase the number of repetitions compared to full-ice hockey and emphasize one particular skill over another. One of my favorite small area games to work on checking skills is USA Hockey’s 2v2 Goal Line Game.
Strength and Conditioning
High performance body checking is, at its core, about an athlete’s ability to effectively produce and absorb force. Often, for an athlete to safely absorb a body check this force must be received in the shoulders and upper body and then transmitted by the athlete through the trunk, into the legs and then dissipated into the ground. Vice versa, an effectively delivered check often starts with the athlete pushing his foot into the ground and transferring force up the body and through the shoulders into an opponent. Athletes who can produce and ABSORB large amounts of force while maintaining body control are higher-performing and safer body checkers. And guess what, these qualities can be developed and improved in most athletes with a science-based and performance-oriented strength and conditioning program.
There are few things more frustrating as a coach than hearing parents who are concerned about their child’s safety refuse to take part in a professional strength and conditioning program out of fear of injury while in the same breath saying that they are registering that child for an on-ice checking camp. Not only does proper strength & conditioning have less chance of injuring an athlete than an on-ice body checking drill, it actually helps that athlete develop qualities to be safer once he or she actually gets into real body checking! The truth is that on-ice checking drills (when properly coached and sequenced) go hand in hand with strength and conditioning. You cannot be an effective body checker without serious work in both domains. If you are weak and cannot absorb or produce force, your skills won’t matter when game time rolls around and your opponents are “playing for keeps.” Likewise, you can be as strong as an ox, but you must have worked on the fundamental techniques to use that strength with skill in order to deliver and receive a body check effectively. You have to have the skills, but you also have to have fundamental strength and body control.
According to Matthew Van Dyke, Director of Sports Science for the Houston Texans (and a former strength coach at the University of Denver), “As athlete’s progress into body checking and contact it is critical to have a strong foundation in regards to strength as well as body control. Both of these can be developed in multiple manners within a well-rounded strength and conditioning program. Key components to consider in the training process include ground-based movements which include, but are not limited to, deadlift and squat variations, as well as different lunging variations (forward, lateral, rotational, and cross-under). Each of these serve a slightly different role but all work to enhance the ability to produce and absorb force through the entire body. Shoulder and back exercises such as rowing variations should also be utilized to maintain safety. Finally, body control and the association between the lower and upper body is critical for on-ice safety. Plank variations and cable rotation exercises are good options to allow the smooth transition of contact forces experienced throughout the body.”
“As athlete’s progress into body checking and contact it is critical to have a strong foundation in regards to strength as well as body control. Both of these can be developed in multiple manners within a well-rounded strength and conditioning program.” – Matthew Van Dyke, Associate Director of Applied Sports Science at The University of Texas
In order to understand the importance of strength to body checking (and which types of exercises actually help improve performance in this area), I would like for you to understand the difference between “closed kinetic chain” movements and “open kinetic chain” movements. It sounds complicated, but it’s really pretty simple.
- Closed Kinetic Chain = exercises in which the hand or foot is in contact with the surface on which you are exercising. EG, a squat, push up or lateral lunge. These are the “ground-based movements” Van Dyke refers to above. These types of movements are very similar to what players will experience in a game and are highly relevant to body checking performance.
- Open Kinetic Chain = exercises in which the hand or foot are not in contact with the ground. This would include exercises like a leg curl on a machine. Obviously, these types of exercises are not nearly as relevant to sport performance and will not help you to produce or absorb force through the ground.
With that understanding in mind, I have listed some exercises below (as well as their progressions and regressions) which are the most important in preparing an athlete for body checking (in my own opinion, of course). Exercises are followed by links to video demonstrations.
- Squats: Checking is all about producing and absorbing force from the ground up. The squat is as good as any exercise at developing this quality. Doing it under load also forces the athlete to maintain an upright trunk and use body control throughout the movement.
Body Weight Squat
Barbell Front Squat (the video shows a slow negative/eccentric phase which is all about absorbing force under control)
Barbell Back Squat
- Upper Body Presses: Imagine you are about two feet off the boards trying to get the puck under control. You have your head down, you are facing the glass and *BAM*…you get hit from behind. Whether or not it’s a penalty is not the question. How are you prepared to protect yourself? If you answered, “getting my head and my hands up and absorbing the impact through my elbows and shoulders while bringing my hips forward in order to present a flat surface to the wall,” you just earned the prize of living to play hockey another day. The ability to do this – to absorb that force through your hands and into your shoulders – can be developed through upper body pressing exercises such as those outlined below (especially the downward phase of these movements). That’s why it’s important to control your descent on a push up and not do it with sloppy form!
Push Up (this video once again shows a slow negative/eccentric phase which is all about absorbing force under control)
Dumbbell Bench Press
Barbell Bench Press
- Lateral Lunges: These are super specific to side checks. They are important not just for delivering an effective side check, but also for receiving one. If you can control your descent in a DB side lunge while keeping your ankle, knee, hip and shoulder in line, then you can probably absorb a side check while presenting a flat surface to the boards.
Body Weight Lateral Lunge (the video shows, in order, a forward lunge, a lateral lunge and a rotational lunge)
Dumbbell Lateral Lunge (Eccentric Emphasis)
Dumbbell Lateral Lunge
Barbell Lateral Lunge
Beginning to body check is both a scary and an exciting time in most players’ careers. Rather than being overly excited and running in with reckless abandon or being afraid and avoiding contact at all costs, players and parents should look at body checking similarly to how a shrewd investor looks at a downturn in the stock market: as an opportunity! Approach body checking with a rational and scientific mindset and a game plan for how you can use it to improve your performance. Find on-ice and off-ice coaches that will take a progression-based and performance-oriented approach to building up your skills and your athleticism. Checking is like any other skill in that it can be developed and improved with proper technique, practice and coaching. It’s built on foundations like skating, hockey IQ and on-ice awareness. But it’s different in a very important way: it’s a skill that you weren’t allowed to use before and now you have an opportunity to be better at it than the next player!