AHU Coach’s Corner: Always play the game with your head up, don’t duck hockey
All AHU coaches are trained to teach players to play heads-up hockey.
Playing with your head up makes it easier to pass and score, and it is one of the most important factors in staying safe. Keeping your head up makes players more aware of their surroundings, and helps to be aware when an opponent is going to deliver a body check. Playing with your head up, especially on the boards, will reduce the chances of severe back and neck injuries.
Checking is a demanding skill in hockey and it’s important in higher level defensive team play. The skill is designed to aid in the recovery and possession of the puck – not to injure or intimidate an opponent. Checking is a tool to produce results within a game. It is not an arbitrary activity, but it is rather meant to separate the opponent from the puck and create time and space between you and the opponent. Learning to properly check prepares players for the challenges that come with the higher level of play. Checking is not only about learning to hit, it’s also learning how to take a hit.
Over the years, there has been debate over waiting to introduce contact until Bantams and whether that helps or hurts development. USA Hockey’s timetable for introducing checking in youth hockey has proven it can be difficult to acquire the right skills if players are too worried about getting hit. Non-contact youth hockey gives players the opportunity to acquire skills in a safe environment.
Training for checking actually begins at the younger levels, when coaches teach players about angling and body positioning. Positioning and angling activities are introduced early in a player’s career. Players learn to protect the puck using their bodies and to angle an opponent in confrontational situations and keep their bodies between the puck and an opponent during puck battles. Read and react activities along with small-area games help players develop positioning and learn to be in the right place at the right time.
It is natural instinct to duck your head when pushed into the boards, but that is wrong thing to do. USA Hockey worked with the Mayo Clinic to release a video with animation demonstrating the dangers of players ducking their heads as they crash into the boards during play. A training program called “Heads Up, Don’t Duck” teaches players to automatically choose the safest posture for impact.
USA Hockey has established basic principles for heads-up hockey:
• Rule #1 – HEADS UP, DON’T DUCK.
• Hit the boards or goal posts with an arm, a leg or anything but your head first.
• Skate into the boards on an angle to dig out the puck.
• Taking a check: Keep your head out of it. Skates parallel to the boards, knees bent, low center of gravity. Skate through the check and get away quickly.
• No checking from behind. It’s illegal, dangerous and bad hockey.
• Wear a snug-fitting, HECC-certified helmet in good shape, plus full facial protection.
• Use a mouth guard every time you’re on the ice.
The more prepared a player is for body contact, the safer the level of play. Coaches also know physical development varies from player to player, especially in the Bantam years. These differences in size and strength need to be recognized and managed to keep the game clean, competitive and fun. By the time a player reaches the Bantam level, they will have ha the opportunity to learn essentials of body contact and checking skills that will allow them to play with a lower risk of injury.
Kurt Goar is Arizona Hockey Union’s coach-in-chief.