Separating fact from fiction in beginner hockey
By MJ Bonevelle
I consider myself to be fortunate to play on three different beginner hockey teams. Two of these are adult recreational women’s teams, while the other is a coed team. In terms of overall hockey skill, I would definitely fall closer to a beginner than an expert.
I play in beginner leagues because I am usually the goalie, and I am a beginner goalie at that. Although I am far from a skilled player, I do have a lot of experience in and around the game. Because of this, I become a de facto coach/manager for each of these beginner teams. Often I am the only one on the team who understands icing or where players should be positioned on face-offs. While working with beginners, I have also heard so many odd comments about hockey that really don’t make any sense to me. I am not sure where these “myths” originate, but they are pervasive in beginner hockey.
Some of the remarks I hear the most are reeled off as absolute truths but leave me wondering, “Who the heck told you that?” And when I try to propose an alternate viewpoint to some of these beliefs, I am again surprised at how many other players believe the same and never even thought about considering a different perspective.
Here are my top 5:
1. “You have to be able to skate backwards to play defense”
The most common phrase I hear is related to who can and can’t play defense. It’s usually based on their overall skill levels, but is generally in relation to their backwards skating.
Probable source of myth—Watching NHL players (always a good measure of comparison for beginning adult players).
Analogy—If your car loses its reverse gear, you won’t be able to get to work.
Truth—If you can’t skate backwards as fast as your opponents can skate forward, your ability to skate backwards is somewhat irrelevant in defense.
There are always ways to adjust your strengths to make up for your weaknesses. Can you get to work if your car doesn’t have a reverse gear? Sure you can. You will just have to watch where you park and plan ahead a bit more. Should you get your car fixed? Of course. Can you play defense without being able to skate backwards very well (if at all)? Sure you can. Should you work on learning to skate backwards in the meantime? Of course.
Especially at the beginner level, players can be far more effective in defense if they just turn and skate forwards with their opponent, cutting off angles, forcing the opponent to the outside, and inhibiting them from making or receiving passes or from shooting, than that defender would be trying to skate backwards and not being able to keep up with the attacker.
I am not saying that backwards skating isn’t an important or even crucial skill in hockey. BUT, a player needs to eventually be able to skate backwards, no matter what position they are playing. While a player is working on improving their backwards skating skills, she can still play defense and learn the positioning and strategies. And chances are good that if they actually play defense, their defensive backwards-skating skills will start to develop without a conscious effort as a necessity of game situations.
2. “A neck guard protects you from puck injuries”
Probable source of myth—A cautionary tale told by league officials to help convince players to comply with league policy.
Analogy—A sweatshirt will protect you from injury if someone throws stones at you.
Truth—A neck guard does not protect you from being injured by a puck. It is designed to protect your neck from cuts from skate blades.
On many occasions, I have been regaled by tales of how a neck guard saved a beginner player from the wrath of a puck on an elevated wrist shot. I still am unable to fathom how this could even be possible. A hockey puck is solid vulcanized rubber, weighs more than a baseball, and is as unforgiving against a human body as concrete would be. A skater’s neck guard is made completely of flexible fabric and is at most about a half-inch thick, filled with soft and collapsible padding. It literally provides as much protection to your neck from a puck as a sweatshirt would protect your arms from thrown stones.
The outside layer of fabric on a hockey skater’s neck guard is made of either Kevlar, ballistic nylon, or some other sort of cut-resistant fabric. The purpose of this equipment is to protect your neck (especially your jugular vein) if your head or upper body should come in close proximity to a skate and the skate blade slices across your neck.
There is much debate on (a) the extent to which a neck guard can fully protect against skate lacerations, and (b) the need to wear a one at all. Regardless, if your league requires you to wear a neck guard as a skater, please do so. But don’t expect it to stop any pain if you are hit with an errant stick or puck.
3. “You don’t need to wear a mouth guard if you have a full cage or face shield”
Probable source of myth—Players who like to flash their pearly whites through their cages.
Analogy—You don’t need to wear your seat belt if your car has airbags.
Truth—You don’t need to wear a mouth guard at all. That is your choice. However, a mouth guard does more than help prevent direct-contact dental injuries.
I am not a dentist nor do I work in the dental field. However, I have been an advocate of players wearing mouth guards ever since my very first time playing in a game. I fell over backwards and smacked my head on the ice; the force of the impact was such that my jaw snapped shut, sending shooting pain through my back molars up into the sides of my face. The pain caused by this incident had nothing to do with a puck, stick, fist, or errant referee whistle hitting my face. It was purely a fall where the impact of my head on the ice forced my teeth together. I was not wearing a mouth guard. The pain lasted a couple of days and was soon accompanied by a headache.
Before I played again the following week, I went to my dentist and had a mouth guard custom made for around $50. I found that the store-bought, self-fitted varieties were very bulky and uncomfortable. While I probably wouldn’t win a contest reciting tongue twisters with my new accessory, it was comfortable and stayed in place. This mouth guard has lasted me six years so far, and I won’t play without it. As much as I am a less-clumsy skater than I was years ago, falling is inevitable in hockey. I don’t ever again want to experience the dental and facial pain that I did when my head hit the ice that first game.
Concussions are a very hot topic right now, especially those resulting from sports such as hockey. Part of the problem with diagnosing, treating, and preventing them is that every blow to the head is different: Sustained from a different angle and at a different speed, affecting different parts of the brain. There is not a lot of hard, incontrovertible data regarding what can actually minimize the effects of a hit to the head. Several experts have stated that wearing a mouth guard can help minimize the severity of a blow (and probable subsequent concussion) by reducing the impact energy that can be transferred between a player’s upper and lower jaw.
However, as with anything else concussion-related, this is difficult to prove. Obviously, a test case using a control group and an experimental group is not really possible. Even evaluating the effectiveness of mouth guards from actual sustained head injuries is difficult because, as stated above, every concussion is different.
What you won’t find is any unequivocal documentation stating that mouth guards do not help alleviate concussion symptoms, nor will anyone tell you that wearing one will make a concussion worse. Several Team Canada Women’s National Team members always wear mouth guards despite the full facial protection of a shield or cage.
Some people say that wearing a mouth guard makes them gag, or makes it hard for them to talk, or is uncomfortable. To those people I would say, go talk to your dentist and ask them to either make you a slim-fitting mouth guard or modify the one you have so that it is more comfortable.
The worst excuse I’ve heard for not wearing one was when a fellow women’s rec player proclaimed, “I don’t need to wear a mouth guard. I have dental insurance.” I don’t even know where to begin trying to counter that argument! Click to read more…