Checking controversy hits ice as study continues

By Lacey Sheppy

Hockey Canada is determined to find the right age to allow bodychecking in minor hockey and they’re using Ottawa players as guinea pigs.

A pilot project, approved last May by the governing body, is using the 2003-04 hockey season to determine what age bodychecking should be introduced to provide the most benefit to young players.

“Our objective,” says Phil McKee, general manager of the Ontario Hockey Federation (OHF), “is to implement checking where it is the safest, where it maintains the natural flow of the game and where players will learn the most. This study will find out exactly when that is.”

Three groups in Ontario are participating in the study which examines the effects of checking starting with the nine- and 10-year-old age group. The OHF (south and central Ontario), the Ottawa and District Minor Hockey Association and the Northern Ontario Hockey Association (North Bay area) are all taking part in the study.

Checking, like the type being studied, is a tactic used to gain control of the puck that requires a player to first out-skate his opponent, then use his shoulder and upper body to shove his opponent off the puck.

Al Ramalho, whose two sons play minor hockey in Ottawa, says the Atom level is an ideal time to teach kids about checking.

“When kids are nine and 10,” says Ramalho, “they’re not big enough to hurt each other. They should be taught then so they learn to keep their heads up and learn how to dodge checks.” Ramalho believes introducing checking at a young age prepares players for what’s to come.

But Ramalho’s seven-year-old son Max, a defenceman and left-winger for the Leitrim Hawks, isn’t interested in learning how to check just yet. He says it’s something he should learn but doesn’t care when it happens.

“I like scoring goals more,” says Max.

The pilot project began this September and is a continuation of a 1997 study headed by Dr. Bill Montelpare of Lakehead University that examined the effects of bodychecking on nine- and 10-year-olds.

Montelpare’s three-year study used personal injury reports to determine if bodychecking was a danger to young players. His final report to Hockey Canada in 2001 concluded there was “no significant difference in the number of injuries between bodychecking and non-bodychecking players.”

CBC’s television program Disclosure re-examined Montelpare’s data in May 2003 and found several miscalculations in the final report. They discovered players at the Atom level in checking leagues sustained almost four times as many injuries than those in non-checking leagues.

Because of this discrepancy, Hockey Canada saw a need for a more thorough investigation to determine when bodychecking should be implemented.

Hubert Seguin, president of the ODMHA, says he’s glad his group is part of the study and thinks “checking is a good thing to learn.” Twenty-eight teams and 420 players in the Ottawa area are taking part in the study.

Seguin says as long as coaches teach players proper techniques, he sees no reason why children as young as nine can’t learn how to bodycheck.

“The coaching is key,” says Seguin. “Checking can be a great advantage for the players if they learn how to do it right.”

Peter Howes, head coach of the Ottawa Sting Minor Bantam AA team, agrees that coaching is key, but says the ODMHA’s participation in the study is “a joke.”

Howes, a coach for 10 years, says in order for the study to be successful coaches must be observed more closely to make sure they know how to teach bodychecking properly.

“You can’t teach someone everything they need to know about bodychecking in a 50-minute ice session,” says Howes, referring to checking clinics all coaches are required to attend as part of the study. He says at least three or four sessions are needed to ensure coaches learn all they need to know.

Howes adds that there should be some way to check up on coaches during the season to make sure they’re still doing things right.

“We can’t very well figure out when to start bodychecking,” says Howes, “if coaches aren’t teaching the same thing all the way through.”