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Hockey is a physical game. At some levels that physicality includes body checking or hitting. Checking occurs when a defensive player crashes into the opponent who’s handling the puck, leading with the hip or shoulder, and resulting in a violent collision. The contact is intended to separate the player from the puck or simply disrupt the play. It’s also about intimidation. Body checking in hockey is a carefully regulated part of the game that many players and fans appreciate, and is a beloved hockey practice at advanced levels. A hard hockey check can bring the crowd to its feet. Just as important, it can help a team win the game, and many coaches will credit their team for out-hitting the opposition or for being more physical.
A lot of hockey checks happen along the boards when a player slams into an opponent with the puck, sending that player crashing into the boards or to the ice. But not all hockey checks happen around the periphery of the hockey rink—open-ice checks can be even more devastating because they often happen when both players are on the move. Hockey players are taught at a very early age to “keep your head on a swivel,” always looking for where your teammates are and where the other team is as well.
Of course, injuries can happen in leagues where checking is allowed. That is why hockey rules clarify the meaning of what is considered a “clean hit,” or a hockey check that follows the rules. No. 1 on the list is, don’t target the head. Shoulders and elbows can cause lasting damage to a head, and most players are careful to avoid hurting other players, as well as the punishment that follows. Majors, double majors, game misconducts, and match penalties may result when a player checks an opponent “above the shoulders,” with stiffer penalties and perhaps suspensions if the opponent is injured.
Different types of body checks happen at different locations on the ice and in different situations. While checking in hockey may look like two players simply crashing together, skilled checking technique actually prevents an injury to the player delivering the hit as well as to the one absorbing the impact. Two of the most common types of checks are the hip check and the shoulder check.
A hip check in hockey can be delivered on open ice, although it often happens along the boards. In a hip check, a player bends down and leads with the hip into the player with the puck.
In a shoulder check, a player leads with the shoulder when hitting an opponent. The player delivering the hit must keep the elbow tucked in or risk a penalty, particularly if the elbow comes anywhere near the opponent’s head.
Not all checks are legal. Officials will raise their hand to signal a penalty for a variety of illegal hits, including these common and dangerous types of body checks.
A cross check occurs when a player holds their stick in both hands with arms extended and uses the stick to impact a player during a check.
Boarding is when a defenseless player is body checked into the boards in a dangerous manner. Because of the nature of this offense, the player’s head or face is often the first to impact the boards, and injury is common.
Charging is called when a body check is delivered by a player who takes three or more strides going into a check or if a player leaves their feet to launch their body into the player to deliver the hit with more force.
Rules on checking vary significantly from league to league, with some leagues not allowing any kind of intentional hitting at all to protect players. USA Hockey raised the age at which young players can body check for the 2011-2012 season. That change made checking against the rules for 12U leagues, with 14U leagues allowing body checks. Checking is allowed in college and high school hockey. Women in the International Ice Hockey Federation are now allowed to check. And the National Hockey League continues to adjust rules to protect players against serious injury caused by body checks.
While body checking in hockey continues at many levels of the sport, the rules are constantly changing to protect players. The fact remains that hockey checks are a big part of the game on the ice, and popular with the fans.