USA Hockey, in the name of increased safety and skills development, has proposed checking be banned from peewee hockey. Its 92-member board will vote on the issue Saturday.
Who could be against progress in safety and skills?
Minnesota Hockey, that's who. In a close vote, it instructed its four representatives on the national board to vote against raising the age level for legalized checking from peewees (ages 11 and 12) to bantams (13 and 14).
Among Minnesota Hockey's concerns about banning peewee checking are:
• Girls would stay in boys' hockey two more years, hurting the overall development of the girls' game.
• Non-USA sanctioned programs will continue to check.
• There is insufficient time for players, coaches, officials and parents to adapt.
• Peewee coaches might not teach checking in practices, which would increase injuries among bantam players.
Minnesota Hockey, which governs youth and amateur hockey in the state, has more than 63,000 members; 48,000 are 14 and under. There were 6,100 peewees in Minnesota last season, 58,000 nationally.
Hal Tearse, who trains coaches for Minnesota Hockey, attended a national meeting in January during which the checking ban was discussed. He said there was not one negative comment from any members of the youth council, the safety committee or the coaches section.
That has changed.
Minnesota Hockey named its own committee to study the issue and last month, after getting those recommendations, its 27-member board voted. The nays prevailed by a one- or two-vote margin, several insiders said.
"It's an emotional issue for a lot of people," Tearse said. "[Opponents] think when their kids become bantams, they will get killed because they will get used to skating with their heads down.
"We've gotten e-mails from Canada that we will become a sissy, recreational league in Minnesota. Of the couple hundred e-mails we've received, 80 percent are against it."
But Tearse, also the boys' coach at Providence Academy, wants checking out of peewee hockey.
"We have too many kids getting hurt at that level," he said. "These kids are not ready for heavy body contact. They've got a lot of skills they need to be focused on, like skating, stick-handling and passing without being concerned about getting destroyed by one or two other kids."
Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey and the co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, also supports the checking ban for peewees.
"I personally love the physical part of the game of hockey," said Stuart, who has three sons who have played in the NHL. "[But] numerous studies document significant risks of injuries, including concussions, in leagues that allow body checking at the peewee level."
A year ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article on 2,000-plus young Canadian players. It compared injuries to peewee boys in Alberta, where checking is permitted, with those in a league in Quebec, where checking is not. It found the players in Alberta suffered more than three times as many game-related injuries, including severe concussions.
"Younger players, if they don't have the skills or mental awareness to safely execute a legal body check, they lose control or have unanticipated hits or high-risk collisions," Stuart said. "Or sometimes boarding, charging or hits to the head are misconstrued as legal body checking."
USA Hockey's proposal encourages coaches to begin teaching checking in practices at squirts (ages 9 and 10) and to continue the instruction through peewees.
"Our research at Mayo shows dramatic decreased risk of injury in practice," Stuart said, "so that's the perfect time to introduce these skills because kids don't get hurt very often. When they get to bantams then, in theory at least, they understand how to check."
Shift in culture
Christian Koelling, who oversees USA Hockey's education of coaches in Minnesota, said a checking ban for peewees will return youth hockey to the way it used to be played before facemasks and improved equipment.
"Now you see more hits and a lot more hits with injury potential," said Koelling, the director of hockey operations for NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth. "Body contact at a young level should be 100 percent intended to gain possession of the puck. But there has been a shift in culture and young level checking is not always that. It is used as intimidation."
USA Hockey officials still expect the peewee checking ban to pass easily, despite Minnesota Hockey's opposition at the congress.
Brad Hewitt, director of District 6 in Minnesota Hockey, is one of the strongest opponents. The injury argument for it troubles him. He said his district, which covers the southwestern suburbs, and District 3, the western suburbs, have studied injuries for several years at the peewee level and there are more among girls, who don't check, than among boys. He also said that Canada, despite its injury studies, still has checking in its elite peewee leagues.
Hewitt said if USA Hockey wants to protect players, it should have tougher penalties on checking from behind, boarding and charging; Minnesota Hockey will make that same recommendation.
Marc Sorenson, a Wayzata bantam coach, wants peewees to keep checking, too.
"A big part of what they are talking about is discrepancies in size and strength [in peewees]," Sorenson said. "All they are doing is delaying the problem. We'd be much better served to put more holistic effort into proper technique, how to check. I know what a daunting task that is. The coaches' abilities and experience is all over the board."
In support of checking
One of the veterans is Rob Loftus, an Elk River High School assistant for 18 years. This spring, he is coaching Miracle Gold, a north metro peewee team. Checking drills were part of its 90-minute practice on Monday at the Super Rink in Blaine.
"There shouldn't be any change; kids should check at peewees," Loftus said. He said checking is ingrained in the state psyche.
Three dads with players on Loftus' team support his premise.
Jay Perbix, who played at Gustavus Adolphus, wants his son Nick to keep checking, saying, "Kids get bad habits if they know they are not going to get checked."
Nick's 10-year-old brother, Jack, already is checking as a squirt in summer tournaments not sanctioned by USA Hockey.
Jim Kroschel, whose son Kyle has joined Loftus' team for one tournament, said checking equalizes disparities for peewees and keeps more kids in the sport. "If you are not quite as fast, you can hold somebody up," he said.
Jim Kroschel had two daughters who played girls' soccer at Kyle's age and said that sport was much worse for injuries; "like hockey without any protection."
At 4-5 and 85 pounds, Jared Giving was the smallest Miracle Gold player on the ice at Monday's practice. He got crushed a few times when he started playing peewees, but he learned how to use his quickness and finesse, said his father, Tim.
"When you are smaller, you play a different style of game," said Tim Giving, who was undersized himself when he played for Augsburg. "[Jerad] doesn't mind checking. He will go in corners. He is not afraid."
Tim Giving said he could go either way on the peewee ban.
Then there are former hockey players turned hockey dads strongly for it.
Grant Potulny played for the Gophers and now is one of their assistant coaches. He is also a part-time assistant for the Champlin Spartans, a mites team his son Jack, 6, plays for.
Safety concerns with peewee checking bother Potulny the most. He expects opposition to a ban will fade eventually.
"It's the same way when they brought helmets in. People opposed it," Potulny said. "Today it would seem crazy not to wear helmets."
Staff writer Rachel Blount contributed to this report.