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USA Hockey emphasizes player safety, skill development with 2021 rule changes

By Nolan O'Hara, SportsEngine, 09/20/21, 10:00AM MDT

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Hub Exclusive: The new rules go in effect this season and will impact players and coaches who are members of the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association.

On-ice officials are tasked with enforcing USA Hockey new rules aimed at improving player safety. The changes will be implemented this season. Photo by SportsEngine

USA Hockey completed in June its rule change process for the 2021-2025 seasons, and updates are aimed at placing emphasis on player safety and skill development.

The organization, which serves as the national governing body for ice hockey in the United States — including for the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) — incorporated many doctrines from USA Hockey's “Declaration of Player Safety, Fair Play and Respect,” which provides added clarity to what is acceptable and unacceptable levels of contact and classifies two categories of contact: competitive contact and body checking.

USA Hockey has had similar categories of check and non-check contact before, however, the Declaration of Player Safety, Fair Play and Respect is entirely new.

Rob Coggin, Referee in Chief for Colorado (RIC), said the emphasis on player safety is similar to past iterations of the rulebook, but this year’s changes further outline steps to protect vulnerable and defenseless players.

“What they’re really doing is trying to change the culture on body checking,” Coggin said. “They’re getting really, really tight on body checks that have nothing to do with the play of the puck and anything that’s late or avoidable.”

Competitive contact replaces the previous terminology of “body contact” and applies to the 10U and 12U levels. USA Hockey allows three types of acceptable contact — angling, physical engagement and collisions — only if skaters are playing for possession of the puck.

Body checking applies to the 14U and above levels. It’s defined by USA Hockey as “intentional physical contact from the front, diagonally from the front or straight from the side, by a skater to an opponent who is in control of the puck.”

What's new is that body checking is now only acceptable when the player being checked is playing the puck and the player delivering the check is focused on gaining possession of the puck and has his/her stick blade below the knees, Coggin said.

“(They’re) trying to get (rid of) some of this body checking and some of the dangerous plays and emphasizing player safety,” said Alan McLean, a CAHA-certified game official. “We’re going to go through a little culture change here to get the players to really be playing the puck and not the other players.”

Minor penalties and game misconducts

Other changes in the USA Hockey rulebook include reductions of times for minor penalties for some age levels and the amounts of penalties that lead to a game misconduct for an individual player or team.

When an individual player receives four penalties in one game, he or she will be ejected and a game misconduct penalty will be assessed. The player will also be suspended for the next game. Previously, players would face an ejection and game misconduct after receiving five penalties. 

When a team commits 12 penalties in a game, its coach will be assessed a game misconduct penalty. The coach will finish the game and be suspended for the next game. Previously, the coach would face an ejection and game misconduct after a team reached 15 penalties. 

Additional rule changes include: Tag up offsides and icing when shorthanded are prohibited in the Youth (18U and below) and Girls but still permitted in the High School classification.

Change in approach

The latest rule updates represent a pivot in youth hockey — one that shifts toward a greater focus on player safety and skill development while encouraging kids to learn and love the game. It’s a shift that USA Hockey and CAHA hope make the game better.

“It’s gonna be a change, for sure. The game is gonna go through a change,” Coggin said. “Our job is to make it as painless as we can on the officiating side of things. It’s an educational process that USA Hockey is embarking upon with everybody: players, coaches, officials and fans.” 

Click here to view the entire 2021-2025 USA Hockey rulebook.

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