We caught Roger Grillo at an interesting time for a conversation about competitive body contact and checking: fresh off the ice after he'd hosted a nearly 3-hour checking clinic at Bentley University in Waltham. Checking is a component not only of games, but also practices, that Grillo considers significantly overlooked. He's working to change that.
From his time as a youth hockey player in Minnesota during the 1970s, to his college career at the University of Maine in the early 1980s and through his coaching stints at Vermont and Brown in the 1990s, and over the past decade with USA Hockey, Grillo has seen a lot of the checking pendulum’s swings.
With the game looking more like it did when skill was the focus of his coaches as a kid — “There weren’t a lot of big, blow-up hits,” he says — he doesn’t see that pendulum swinging back. And that’s a good thing for hockey.
Mass Hockey: How did body contact become something different than it had been when you were playing youth hockey?
Roger Grillo: I think checking, somewhere along the way, became hitting. And it almost became an intimidation type thing. Instead of checking to win possession of the puck, it was checking to knock somebody down. We’ve been trying to reemphasize the proper techniques of what a body check is. [In my youth hockey experience], the game wasn’t super physical. Somewhere along the line, probably in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I think we went off track with the purpose of a check. And we’re trying to pull that back now.
Mass Hockey: Do you think your hockey experience was unique for your generation?
Grillo: I think it also depends on who your coaches are, the focus of practice and how you play the game. I had great coaches, and the focus was on skill and playing with the puck.
Mass Hockey: What is the state of body contact and checking at this moment in hockey history?
Grillo: I think we know more now about head injuries and what’s age-appropriate. We know what our focus is and that our priority is keeping kids safe – and making the game a skilled one. The focus is on winning possession of the puck and keeping possession of the puck. At some point, it went off the tracks in knocking somebody down and trying to intimidate. And that’s not the proper technique for a body check.
Mass Hockey: At its worst, what is body contact?
Grillo: At its worst, it’s a hit to the head, or checking from behind, and it’s used as an intimidation piece instead of winning possession of the puck. When I ask kids who the best checkers are, they always name the big hitters. I keep trying to get them to understand a guy like Patrice Bergeron is a phenomenal body checker. He just uses his body in a much calmer and less violent way. That’s what makes him so good – his proper technique and the quality of that technique. It’s for possession of the puck.
Mass Hockey: At its best, what is body contact in hockey?
Grillo: It’s winning space. It’s like soccer or basketball. You’re winning a race to a spot and the puck-carrier is running into you. You’re not initiating contact. You just made a good decision and a good read. You took a good angle. You put your body in a good position to impede the forward progress of a puck-carrier and win possession of the puck. And I think that’s what it’s all about.
Mass Hockey: In your estimation, how important are properly taught approaches to checking and competitive body contact?
Grillo: It’s such a critical piece of the game because so much of the game is played without the puck. All the statistics tell you that the vast majority of the game is played without it. So, if you’re not good at using your body to win it back without taking a penalty, or hurting somebody or hurting yourself, then you’re probably not going to be a very good hockey player. It’s a critical part of the game that we really need to focus on, and we need to focus on teaching and coaching kids to be better at it.
Mass Hockey: What can coaches teach, and should it be taught during practice time or coached during games?
Grillo: No, it has to be practice. We strongly encourage body contact and bumping and battling at young ages – even, 8-and-under. And we strongly encourage our 12-and-under coaches to [incorporate] full body checking in practice so kids have a couple years of full body checking before 14-and-under. I think it’s a critical, critical part of the practice environment. I think it’s way under-coached and under-taught. And we have to get that back in.
Mass Hockey: At the Bentley University clinic, were a lot of eyes opened to the ideas you were sharing?
Grillo: It’s really eye-opening – for the kids and, especially, the coaches. The goal of a checking clinic is to break down some of the barriers for the athletes. But, most important, for the coaches to see the types of drills they can incorporate into their daily practice plans — and then not just do them periodically, but every day.
Mass Hockey: How can players, coaches and families find out more about what USA Hockey and Mass Hockey are interested in building into practice?
Grillo: If you go to the USA Hockey website, there are so many resources out there. There’s a ton of USA Hockey stuff on YouTube for body checking and body contact drills. There’s the mobile coaching app, and it’s phenomenal. And go to admkids.com. There’s so much information out there from USA Hockey.
(Check back for Part 2 in our next newsletter)
9/24 – Competitive Body Contact Clinic Hyde Park Youth Hockey
9/25 – Parent/Coaches Meeting with Triboro Youth Hockey
9/26 – Competitive Body Contact Clinic Elite 9, East Coast Wizards – Edge Ice Center, Bedford, MA
9/30 – Parent/Coaches Meeting with Brewins Youth Hockey
10/7 – Competitive Body Contact Clinic Beverly Youth Hockey
10/8 – Competitive Body Contact Clinic Amherst Youth Hockey
10/16 – Competitive Body Contact Clinic NEPHL, EMass Senators, Bentley University
10/21 – Coaching Clinic in Waltham
TBD – South Shore Kings
TBD – Danvers Youth Hockey