What Is Checking in Hockey – Body Checking Meaning in 2023

Posted on April 15, 2024 by Dan Kent
body check

Few things in sports can get so many fans out of their seats simultaneously than a perfectly executed open ice body check. The physicality and speed of ice hockey attract so many fans to this great sport. Hockey is the fastest sport on Earth, and every play must be made in a split second due to this.

What is checking in hockey?

Body checking in hockey is where a player deliberately makes physical contact with an opposing player in possession of the puck to stop or slow their movement across the ice, separate them from the puck, and advance on goal. Body checking is a legal (in men's adult leagues that permit it, i.e. NHL) physical hit that takes skill, timing and absolute precision. Most of the physicality and big hits you'll see in hockey are during the forecheck.

Many people do not realize that properly connecting on a body check is a skill in itself. Some players, such as Niklas Kronwall and Scott Stevens, have become even more known for their hits over their on-ice ability. It's an art form in its own way.

Here's everything you need to know about checking in hockey.

Why is checking legal in hockey?

Bodychecking in hockey is a strategy that has long been ingrained into the game. At its core, bodychecking is a strategy that is supposed to be used to gain possession of the puck.

However, as players have gotten bigger and technology has advanced, bodychecking is facing a lot of scrutinies now due to severe injuries caused by it. Players are bigger, lighter, and have better quality equipment, which has allowed them to skate faster, making hits more pronounced and severe.

It is doubtful they ever remove bodychecking from the game of hockey. Instead, they will continue implementing more rules and regulations to remove severe hits from the game, which pose hazards to a player's overall health.

A well-timed, well-delivered body check can change the entire momentum of a hockey game.

The excitement of the crowd, the energy caused on the ice for the players involved in the game, and the physical toll on the body that a good body check can cause can flip a game on its head.

Checking is a huge part of hockey and an X factor that draws many fans. The next time you sit down and watch a game, I hope you can truly appreciate the beauty of a well-executed body check.

When can you start checking in hockey?

Starting in 2013, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada agreed that the age at which checking would start for boys' hockey is 13. The rule change in North America has led to similar changes in Europe and worldwide.

Before 2013, checking became legal in boys' hockey at age 11.

These changes were caused by studies showing that the developing brains of young children could be negatively impacted by head trauma at a young age. With contact being present in youth ice hockey, youth hockey players would be at extended risk.

A statistical trend also showed that most youth players who quit hockey did so at levels of play when contact hockey begins, primarily due to the risk of injury. By pushing the hitting age back, the governing bodies running hockey believed they could get kids playing longer.

Once youth hockey is over at 18, many players will move into non-contact adult hockey leagues. A select few will move into higher levels of hockey, like junior hockey (u20), college hockey, or professional hockey, where body contact is legal and very much a part of the game. 

Should checking be removed from hockey?

This is a question that is going to heavily depend on the person being asked. Many people are advocates for removing body checking from hockey due to the high injury rates from the action itself. In fact, playing in a bodychecking league can increase your chances of getting injured by a whopping 300%.

On the other hand, many purists of the game of hockey state that it would materially change the game, and this is an opinion that I agree with. The physical nature of the sport tends to require more skill and a reactionary ability to make decisions. If it was removed, the game and overall strategies would change materially.

Many fans would eventually get used to it. However, it is unlikely they ever remove body checking from professional leagues like the National Hockey League outright, as it is a big draw for fans of the game.

Why aren’t girls allowed to check in hockey?

There is no hard and fast answer as to why girls are not allowed to check in hockey. I assume that the rule to outlaw bodychecking in women's hockey is primarily because few female hockey players play the sport full-time.

No doubt bodychecking increases the likelihood of injury by a landslide in hockey. Those who play the sport full-time are often compensated and taken care of when they are injured. A female hockey player who plays the sport competitively but ultimately not for a full-time wage may not want to risk their employment by being injured in the sport.

However, remember that a female playing in a men's league where full contact is allowed can bodycheck opposing teammates. Plenty of female hockey players grew up playing men's hockey and are completely capable of giving and receiving body checks.

For some reason, they have never made bodychecking legal in women's hockey.

What are the checking rules in hockey?

USA Hockey defines a body check as body contact to separate an opponent from possessing the puck. While many checks appear different to the eye, all legal checks must follow the guidelines established by the governing body under which the game is being played.

body check

The NHL requires all checks to be delivered by the trunk of the body to the trunk of the opposing player's body. The body's trunk is defined as the area between the hips and the shoulders.

What is an illegal check in hockey?

Any contact made from or to a part of the body outside of this area, including the head, back, or knees, among others, can result in many penalties.

Another important aspect of delivering a body check is that the player being checked must have possession of the puck when contact is being made; hitting a defenceless player is not an acceptable hit under the game's rules.

It is essential to learn how to properly throw and receive a check to improve as a player and make the game safer for all involved.

Can you check someone from behind in hockey?

Checking from behind is arguably one of the most dangerous plays a hockey player can make. If a player checks someone from behind, they will be assessed a match penalty and receive an ejection from the game. In minor league hockey, it often comes with a guaranteed suspension.

The infraction is so dangerous that minor leagues often sew a STOP sign onto the back of the jersey to make players think twice about checking from behind.

What is the difference between checking and boarding in hockey?

Boarding someone in hockey is, by definition, checking someone in hockey. However, it is a dangerous type of check, and a player is assessed a 2-minute minor penalty or even a potential game misconduct and major penalty, depending on the severity and discretion of the referee.

By definition, checking is body contact with a player in the trunk area to gain possession of the puck. On the other hand, boarding is where a player trips or checks an opponent dangerously into the boards. 

What is the difference between cross-checking and checking?

The main difference between cross-checking and checking in hockey is that one is done with the stick and the other with the body. Remember, by definition, a "check" in hockey is a method to separate an opponent from the puck. It doesn't necessarily need to be a body check; it could also be stick-checks.

There are many ways for a player to legally stick-check an opponent. However, a cross-check, where you forcefully check someone with your stick in a horizontal position, is an illegal stick-check and is typically assigned a 2-minute minor when it occurs.

Depending on the severity, however, it could also be a 5-minute major.

How do you avoid checks in hockey?

There are a multitude of strategies for avoiding a check in hockey. The more you can avoid a check or reduce the impact of a check, the less chance you have of turning the puck over and, arguably more importantly, not getting injured.

One of the most common phrases in hockey is "Keep your head up." This is almost exclusively used to avoid a body check. Suppose your hand-eye coordination is weak, and you must look at the puck to stickhandle it. In that case, you expose yourself to large body checks because you do not know what is coming. Working on your stickhandling and ability to read plays is arguably the best way to avoid a body check.

In addition, you must try to avoid getting your body checked on open ice. It is much easier to receive a check when your body is tight to the outside boards, as there is a cushion to them which will absorb some of the impact. However, with an open-ice hit, ice hockey players absorb all of the impacts and hit the ice, which can lead to further injury.

Different types of checking in hockey

Most of the content above is specifically aimed at body checking. However, there are many types of "checking" in hockey, and the terminology can be quite confusing for some. So, let's go over some of them.

Forechecking

Forechecking is putting pressure on the opposing player in their own defensive zone to gain possession of the puck. Typically it will be the attacking team's forwards that are forechecking the defenseman of the opposing team. Those who are forechecking are said to be on offence, while a defenseman being forechecked out is a defensive player attempting to clear their defensive zone.

Backchecking

A player is said to be backchecking when they are skating from their attacking zone to their defensive zone in an attempt to turn over the puck. An example of a backcheck would be a player taking a shot on the opposing team's goaltender, the puck is played by the goaltender to one of his teammates, and that team breaks the puck out of their own zone and heads towards the opposing team's zone. 

In this instance, the player who took the shot has now been forced to backcheck to their defensive zone and prevent a goal from being scored.

Poke check

A poke check is a stick check where instead of using the body, a player uses their stick to separate an opponent from the puck. It typically involves "jabbing" at an opponent's stick in an effort to knock the puck off of it. However, poke checks can also be done by a goaltender to separate an opponent from the puck. 

Typically, NHL defenders who are tall and have longer total reaches can utilize the poke check to separate players from the puck easier than a short player with a shorter stick.

Hip check

A hip check is a unique type of body check that is legal in hockey. It is when instead of leading with a shoulder or upper body, a player leads with the hip to make physical contact with an opposing player.

The player will generally crouch lower to the ice and lead with the hip to separate the opponent from the puck. Hip checks can be executed in open ice and along the boards. However, you'll rarely see them on open ice as they are difficult and risky to execute.

How to throw a proper body check

Breaking down the technique of a proper body check can be complicated and takes many repetitions to perfect as body position is constantly changing. With the game's speed, this technique must come as second nature.

There are many keys to delivering an effective body check, many of which begin well before any contact. Anticipation, timing, and technique are all important in delivering a good check.

With a sport as fast as ice hockey, players cannot afford to not react to the play in front of them. Reading the game, or anticipating the play, allows a player to be in the right place at the right time.

Angles are everything

Getting into the right position also has much to do with proper angling. Angles may not always seem to have a place in sports, but they are very important.

An NHL ice surface is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. This means that if you can not properly angle an opposing player, they have plenty of space to avoid the check and continue to attack your goal.

Taking a proper angle to an opposing player forces them into a path that can only lead to body contact; the player can make contact or get rid of the puck in time to avoid the check.

Body position is key

To deliver a check, a player must be in a low, stable body position with their knees bent and their head and chest up.

As contact is about to be made, the player delivering the check will force their momentum up through their body and into the opposing player.

A proper check will see a player go from a low starting position to a higher body position, with principal contact made by the shoulder or hip, depending on the opposing player's body position.

The player delivering the check must also be sure not to leave their feet as this is illegal.

When done correctly, this check will force the opposing player to lose control of the puck and, in hopes, allow the checking player's team to recover the puck.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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