When it comes to the raging debate on whether tougher restrictions are necessary on when bodychecking is first introduced to minor hockey league players, the game’s greatest offensive force does some adept verbal stick-handling on the subject.
Wayne Gretzky was in Toronto on Monday where he was among the first individuals appointed to the Order of Hockey in Canada, a new initiative through which Hockey Canada recognizes those who have made outstanding contributions or service to the growth of the sport in Canada.
The NHL’s career scoring leader with over 2,800 points, Gretzky was never known as a punishing physical player and one who, later on in his career, spoke out against escalating violence in the game.
“Most people probably think that I think there shouldn’t be hitting in hockey,” Gretzky said when asked what he felt the proper age to introduce bodychecking to players at the minor hockey level. “But I think that in the game of hockey, the physical side of the game is very important.”
To Gretzky, who retired following the 1998-99 season after a 20-year NHL career, said players at a young age not only need to be taught how to check but also how to take one.
“It’s just as important for players like myself to learn how to take bodychecks,” Gretzky said.
However, Gretzky admitted he was uncertain at what age in a player’s minor hockey development that bodychecking should first be introduced.
“Obviously at the age of 11 or 12 years old. … If you’re going to continue on that path and become a junior player or college player, that you have to learn how to take bodychecks,” he said. “Not only give bodychecks but take bodychecks.
“So maybe we redefine leagues. Maybe there’s kids that don’t want to pursue it as a career but like playing it for the enjoyment of the sport and for the recreation of the game. Maybe down the road there’s two different categories.”
The debate on bodychecking in minor hockey continues to be a hot-button topic across Canada as parents look to better protect their children in a sport where the documented cases of concussions has risen to an alarming rate.
Over the weekend in Alberta, Hockey Calgary voted against a motion that would have banned bodychecking at the peewee level.
“It’s a real physically demanding sport and it’s never going to change,” Gretzky said. “The players are better athletes today, they’re bigger and stronger. And I understand why parents and some people have apprehension about when hitting should become part of the game.
“So I guess through all that I really don’t have a real answer for you.”
Gretzky was one of five people appointed to the Order of Hockey in Canada, along with former NHL greats Jean Béliveau and Gordie Howe, although neither was present.
Former women’s national team member Cassie Campbell-Pascall, who captained Canada to two Olympic gold medals in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin, Italy, in 2006, was also honoured along with Gordon Renwick, a long-time Canadian amateur hockey executive.
Bob Nicholson, the president and chief executive officer of Hockey Canada, said the issue of when to start introducing bodychecking to younger players is a complex issue.
He said the most important thing is that younger players, no matter what the age, receive the proper coaching on bodychecking techniques.
“There’s no magical age,” Nicholson said. “Kids start playing hockey at different ages, their skill levels are different. We just have to emphasize with coaches how to teach the skill of checking.”