Playing the body
Posted by Dean Holden at March 25th, 2013
by John Russo, 21 March 2013
Note: This will be one of the articles (Chapter 7: Systems and Concepts) in John Russo’s soon-to-be published new book “Best of Coaches’ Corner – 26 Years.” Watch for it in 2013.
Some players are a lot more likely than others to play the body. Some players are paid big money in the NHL to play the body. Some players are not at all interested in playing the body or having the body “played” on them. Most of the latter types are not very successful after they progress into about the Bantam level.
Physical contact is a real and important part of our game of hockey. The big questions is, “How much physical play should there be?” The penalty sections of the rule book are a guide mostly for what you can and cannot do to another player. Conformance with the “physical” rules should be stressed by all coaches.
It has always been my feeling (as a coach) that body checking should be for a purpose, not just for the pure sake of the crunch. I’ll get to some of these purposes in just a minute.
Looking way, way back to when I was a player, I do recall that the crunch did count, however.
Any time a player has the puck, that player is and should be ready to accept body contact. It is my feeling that the puck and the player with the puck should be played at the same time. Very seldom does that mean there should be a head-on collision or even a major, non head-on collision. Most of the time, it means that the player will be “taken out” – legally impeded enough so the puck is lost or passed.
The objective of our game is to score and keep the other team from scoring, very much like it is in basketball or soccer. Those sports, however, don’t allow the same kind of contact that hockey does, so we have to have more rules, and penalties, and padding. The players in our sport, also therefore, have to be willing to hit and be hit.
When it is not appropriate to “play the body?” First of all, it is not appropriate to play the body with the stick to any degree. Obviously, some stick/body contact has always been part of the game, but hooking and holding with the stick, should not be tolerated. It is not at all appropriate to check from behind. Referees are now very conscientious about calling penalties for checking from behind and the incidents have gone way down. It is also not appropriate to play the body of a player if the puck is available. The main idea is still to get control of the puck. Sometimes two players, working together, can have one play the body of the most recent puck carrier (legal) and the other go after the puck.
In many situations, playing the body in some manner, is appropriate. Let’s take a look at some of the most critical of these situations.
• Any time a defenseman is faced with a 1-on-1 situation, it is important to stay in front of the puck carrier and play the body rather than the puck until the puck is loose and available. Of course, on a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-2, the best strategy is generally not to do so.
• Any time a player with the puck tries to “squeeze by” on the boards, it is best to stop the progress of the puck carrier. This doesn’t mean splattering the player on the boards, but it does mean a very firm squeeze out. Trying to play the puck in these situations will often let a strong puck carrier through the puck.
• Any time a puck carrier is wheeling around in their offensive zone, it is necessary to “stop progress.” That means knocking the player off the puck or just getting into the body to stop movement and force the puck where it can be picked up by a teammate.
• Any time a player goes into the corner or behind the net to defend against a player that will get there first. Playing the body in this case generally means getting the player up on the boards to “take away the hands.” Letting a puck carrier wheel around along the boards without being pinned is a sure way to have a pass out and a shot on goal take place.
• The most common open-ice checking situations happen at the defensive blue line and when a player is coming out of their offensive zone corner to attack the net. At the defensive blue line, the defensemen need to step up and play the body to force a slow down or break up of the play – and possibly an offside situation. When a player is coming out of the corner to attack the net, playing the body (stopping progress) is the only sure way to avoid a chance on goal. Trying to play the puck against a good stickhandler is a sure way to get beat.
• When the puck is in front of the net, “getting into” the offensive player and taking away the hands is the surest way to stop the offensive change. Any time a puck carrier isn’t keeping track of who is around (eyes down), hitting the puck carrier is an option – unless there are other risks.
Players should learn to just “get a piece” when checking or to check such that major collisions don’t occur. Any major collision can result in injury to either player. The “big hitters” who have collisions constantly will invariably end up on the injured list pretty often.
I have not discussed the concept of following through every time to check the player who is passing the puck. While this is a philosophy at the high end of youth hockey (high-end high school), college and pro, it would require more discussion time than is available. Most youth coaches are not involved in teaching this concept anyway.
Just like anything else, coaches not only explain to their players when it is and is not appropriate or important to play the body – but then provide constant reminders to get the proper habits ingrained.
John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.