Body contact is as critical a skill as shooting or passing. But it doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Few coaches would argue the importance of proper body contact and body-checking in developing youth hockey players.
But they often have questions about the best ways to teach these skills effectively. How can my players protect the puck with the right amount of contact? What can I do to make sure the referee won’t call a penalty? Shouldn’t players wait until 14U before learning body-checking?
That’s where Dan Jablonic comes in. As the hockey director for the USA Hockey Model Association Washington Little Caps/Kettler IcePlex in Arlington, Virginia, Jablonic teaches body contact and checking skills to coaches and players through his Contact Confidence Clinic, a two-day event held several times a year. Students not only learn appropriate contact and body-checking techniques, but how those techniques can make players more productive on the ice and create a safer game using USA Hockey’s model of progressions and repetitions.
“We’re not only talking to our kids, but [we] get a lot of requests from outside players who are coming off an injury, and are looking for ways they can improve their game, and get back into the game after either being injured through body contact or improper ice awareness,” said Jablonic, who has held contact clinics the past three years.
A native of Blaine, Minnesota, Jablonic played college hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He spent time with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL under Peter Laviolette, now the Nashville Predators head coach. Following his playing career, Jablonic coached youth hockey in Milwaukee before spending five years as a coach and assistant for a junior team in Sweden.
USA Hockey American Development Model Regional Manager Guy “Goose” Gosselin, a lead instructor for Jablonic’s clinics, believes body contact is a critical skill that needs to be emphasized more in player development.
“Twenty to 30 years ago, players could run around, take themselves out of a play and lay intimidating hits all over the ice,” Gosselin explained. “We used to have a football mentality. Now, the game is played with more of a soccer mentality. Body-checking is a skill that needs to be taught just like any other skill, and [it] takes years to master.”
During the first day of the clinic, players start out on the ice with instruction on puck retrieval and building confidence to make good passes. The next session is conducted off-ice, in full gear. Players learn basic drills and techniques such as how to use the points of their shoulders and hips, versus sticking out with other parts of the body. The day ends with another on-ice session, utilizing what the players learned off the ice and applying it in competition drills and small-area games.
The second day begins with a quick review, followed by more game situations with heightened body contact to continue gaining confidence. Another off-ice session focuses on the culture of the game, teaching the importance of dynamic warm-ups to prepare for body contact. Players are then treated to a video session, featuring college and NHL game clips, followed by highlights of previous clinics. Once a play is shown, kids are asked to determine whether there was legal body contact, where the puck was in that area, if there was interference, and other situations. These sessions encourage players to analyze the game and have stimulating discussions.
Jablonic doesn’t shy away from showing kids the consequences of improper body contact.
“We tell the players, this isn’t to scare [them]; this is just the reality of our game,” he explained. “We use the ‘Heads Up, Don’t Duck’ curriculum. We show that video to the kids to really hit home that point of if you’re ducking going into the boards, something serious could happen. This type of training is a way you can reduce the likelihood of a concussion by taking the time to teach kids the proper angles, proper pursuit, how to go back and retrieve a puck, how to go under control using your edges.”
The high cost of ice time often makes it difficult to schedule body contact drills during practice. Jablonic offers a simple solution to that problem by incorporating off-ice drills in full gear. It’s an approach he learned while coaching in Sweden.
“It doesn’t cost anything,” Jablonic said. “They’ve got helmets on, shoulder pads, everything but your skates. You can go and work on body contact drills. Then, the first couple drills you do in practice, those are the same drills you just did off-ice. Those extra repetitions … it doesn’t really matter if you’re on-ice or off-ice. USA Hockey is promoting that off-ice component, and it’s huge. With limited resources, depending on what rink you’re at, that’s something anybody can do.”
Body contact is as critical a skill as shooting or passing. But it doesn’t have to be rocket science. Events like Jablonic’s Contact Confidence Clinic can open a coach’s eyes to new, creative ways of incorporating techniques into their practices.
“It’s not about blowing somebody up,” Jablonic said. “It’s about winning the puck, and making plays with it. You don’t have to be a 14-year-old to get that contact confidence. You can – and should – start to get it in 8U, 10U, or 12U, so you can play the game the right way. With the tools of USA Hockey, you have more players on the ice doing the right thing.”