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Hitting is the hardest part

For Hockey Canada, rewriting bodycheck rules is a key step in changing the culture of the game

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It was not much of a shove.

It was midway through a tight 1-1 game between the 12A1 Fort Garry North Flyers and the 12A1 Dakota Lazers at St. Vital Arena. Drew Angers, a forward for the Flyers, was skating hard on the back check into his own zone. As he caught up to a Dakota winger trying to cut in with the puck from the boards, Angers gave him a shove. As soon as the Dakota player hit the deck, the referee’s arm went up to call a penalty.

Last year, when Angers was an 11-year-old, that shove was not a penalty because Hockey Canada allowed bodychecking in his age group. This year, new rules banned bodychecking from peewee hockey (age 11 and 12 ), so that shove is now a penalty.

After the game, steam rising from his sweaty head, Angers was still a bit angry. "It’s pretty frustrating because even if you run into a guy accidentally, if he goes down, you get a penalty."

Teammate Josh Gardner added: "You have to be careful now, especially around smaller guys. They go down easy and you’ll get called every time."

When asked if they would prefer to bodycheck, both nodded their heads enthusiastically. "Absolutely," said Angers.

Hockey Canada’s decision this past summer to eliminate bodychecking in peewee hockey comes at an interesting time in the evolution of the game. From the NHL on down, a debate is raging about the way we play hockey, in particular the culture of bodychecking.

NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has handed out more and longer suspensions than ever before in a clear effort to provide a deterrent to players engaged in reckless play. That effort comes in the same season a group of ex-players filed a lawsuit against the NHL for not doing enough to protect them against concussions.

Chief among the allegations is that the NHL knew of the long-term health risks of repeated concussions, but did nothing to protect players. In many respects, Hockey Canada’s decision to delay the introduction of bodychecking is an attempt to, at the game’s youngest levels, ensure it is not guilty of the same mistake.

There has been a grudging acceptance in peewee hockey that the bodychecking ban is, on the whole, a reasonable measure to improve player safety.

Mike Angers, Drew’s father and head coach of the 12A1 Flyers, said there has been very little complaint from parents. "There was some concern about this when it first happened, but it really hasn’t affected the play as much as the naysayers thought it would."

Many of those parents might not remember in the previous season, when bodychecking was allowed, the size difference between the smallest and largest players often led to many inadvertent penalties, he said. This year, there seems to be fewer penalties of all kinds being called, he added.

However, Angers said there is still a lot of concern among parents whose kids want to play at the highest level next season — AA or AAA hockey. "Most or our parents were a bit disappointed it (the new age limits) came in this year, because they are looking forward to playing at the next level next year," said Angers. "And they know hitting will be a part of the game again."

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