The National Hockey League (NHL), Winter Olympics and the World Junior Championships showcase the world’s best ice hockey players and inspire young hopefuls to dream of becoming the next Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkyn or Hayley Wickenheiser.
Like most team sports, ice hockey builds character, mental toughness and an understanding of what it takes to be part of a team; however, only a few aspiring players advance to the elite level. Children who demonstrate the enthusiasm and talent to rise up through the junior ranks into the high-speed, intense action of the NHL will inevitably need to develop skills in hitting, checking, and avoiding injury on the ice.
Rules Governing Hitting
Checking and hitting are often used interchangeably to describe the action of unbalancing an opponent to cause loss of puck control. However, not all checks involve hits; a player can check an opponent using skilled stick moves, such as stealing the puck or ‘poking’ it out from the opponent’s control (called a ‘poke check’).
Hitting is the hardest form of checking. In the NHL, the standard penalty for an illegal hit is called a ‘five-minute major’. Half way through the 2010-2011 NHL season, more than 700 minutes – or approximately 11.5 hours – of major penalty minutes had already been doled out to players.
More severe penalties in hockey are generally issued for the following infractions: hits to the head, hits from behind (especially against the boards surrounding the play surface), and hits intended to injure knee joints. All of these moves can lead to serious or career-ending injuries; penalties can range from game misconducts to multi-game suspensions.
Hitting Under Scrutiny
There is ongoing controversy surrounding the inconsistency of penalties in hockey. Research into the long-term effects of successive blows to the head in professional sports, combined with highly-publicized injuries and fatalities among both professional and amateur players, has spurred a renewed call for tougher penalties for players who ignore the rules.
Under intense media pressure following a devastating hit to the head by player Matt Cooke on Marc Savard, the NHL enacted tougher rules governing hits to the head in the 2010-2011 season. However, with only three on-ice officials trying to keep up with the lightning-fast speed of the game, infractions are still missed.
Television replays are useful in reviewing injurious events that are missed by referees. The NHL can review footage of injuries and issue post-game punishments to perpetrators; however, this is little consolation for the players or their families.
Hitting is forbidden in children’s hockey leagues until the Pee Wee level – or until players reach approximately 12 years of age. Pressure from parents in the U.S. and Canada has led to increased scrutiny of Pee Wee hitting by minor hockey associations in both countries. In 2011, U.S.A. Hockey voted on increasing the minimum hitting age from 12 to 14 years.