The art of playing the body in the non-checking hockey leagues
By Evan Tabachnick
Almost every recreational hockey league for those 18 and over is most often branded a non-checking league. Sure, you’ll hear the moans and groans from high school blowhards and newcomers attracted to the game for its bone-crushing hits. The truth is, the vast majority of rec hockey players are in it for the less physical aspects of the game: the workout of a good skate, along with the scoring, passing, teamwork and, okay, maybe a little “mixing it up” in front of the net. Playing the body offers a way to take control without the actual hit.
Just about every confrontation is 90% verbal (and 100% mental!) and rarely makes it past a few shoves. And when the physicality becomes noticeable in a game—from intentional body checking, to fighting, to general chippiness (slashing, hacking, etc.)—the familiar “we have to get up for work in the morning” argument inevitably comes up. The reason is simply that this behavior is really just contrary to the spirit of recreational hockey, which for all intents and purposes is hockey is for fun.
Although the act of lining up a player for a hit is exactly what puts the “checking” in a non-checking league, a brief discussion on the nature of body checking is warranted. By definition, body checking in hockey is the act of using one’s body to separate an opponent from the puck. When executed without collision, “body checking,” in the purest sense here, is legal in recreational leagues. (Disclaimer: using this definition in an argument with a referee to get out of a penalty will most likely result in additional penalty minutes!)
Perhaps we should get into more colloquial terms, as the definition above could get you in trouble in most circles. The act to which we’re referring is more commonly known as “playing the body” and is a common tactic for defensemen. Again, we’re not talking about leading into a collision with the shoulder and flattening your oncoming opponent. Rather, this is “stepping in” and providing a bit of contact, matching your speed with your opponent’s, and then using your body to act as a wedge to distance their body and the puck for a takeaway.
Rarely will you encounter whining or protest when this move is properly executed, and you’ll almost never see a penalty called. This is because referees and all experienced players know that playing the body is an integral part of the game of hockey. When a player uses his/her body to deliver a hit with the intent of knocking an opponent onto the ice or into the boards, this is an act of malice and against the spirit of recreational hockey.
However, playing the body as a means of gaining possession of the puck, with the puck being the focus of the play, will forever exist as an untouchable part of the game at all levels, checking or non-checking.
Evan Tabachnick is the Executive Director of RugbyNY. He plays in two rec hockey leagues.