PuckDaddy has a great encapsulation of some "hockey code"-related events from the NHL last night, and it got me thinking about something that has increasingly bothered me: It looks like no one in this league was ever taught how to check.
"I didn't see the replay. I thought it was [clean]. I jumped? ... I don't want to injure the guy. I work out with him in the summer. That's the last thing I want -- to hurt a guy like that. I was just trying to finish my checks out there."
See, when I was a boy -- it seems so long ago -- I was introduced to this fast, physical game called "hockey." One of the many draws of hockey was that you could physically separate Man from Puck by delivering what is called "a bodycheck." At a tender age, I was taught that the "body" in bodycheck implied parts of your torso or "body" that can never leave your physical center: Essentially, your shoulder or hip. (Chest also counts, but is considered unwise.)
In other words, NOT appendages like elbows, knees, forearms or fists. (The latter, you needed for the response if you used any of the former.) One other simple rule: No jumping. In hockey, movement is about where the skate hits the ice.
To do this "checking" task successfully, you have to be able to skate, read the play and anticipate an opponent's movements. This is what makes a classic open-ice hip check so beautiful: It involves two moving bodies, heading in different directions (as opposed to the more common race to the boards toward a single, clearer end point), where the checker -- his physical intelligence processing millisecond by millisecond -- triangulates both his path and the path of the puck-carrier, and adjusts his own movement to get to that point of collision at just the right moment.
Now, players are human. Mistakes happen. Arms come up, knees go out. The game is fast and requires instant decisions. We know this. But that is precisely why training at an early age is meant to drill reflexive knee-or-elbow instincts out of a player. The goal is that on the ice, in the moment, you shouldn't have to think, "Wait, don't elbow him!" (I'm looking at you, Thomas Pock) -- but rather, an aversion to this elbow-or-knee instinct is drilled into your nature through training and physical repetition.
[Witness the not-all-that-controversial Doug Weight hit from earlier this year: An unfortunate hit, given the result (a Brandon Sutter concussion), but the beauty is that Weight kept his arm in (even the Canes announcers agreed). Weight had to make a sudden reaction to Sutter's sudden lean forward, and Weight didn't stick his arm up or throw a knee out, he just braced for impact the way I suspect he was taught back in the day.]
So when a player like Burrows makes such a miserable mockery of the art of checking (against a workout partner, no less), then afterwards believes he did not jump, that his check was "clean," and that he's just "finishing [his] check," I can only conclude that he and players of his generation aren't taught how to check anymore.
[Note: By no means am I pretending the "old days" were not filled with cheap shots and underskilled players, etc. Rather, I'm just saying you used to see clean hits more often, by guys who knew how to deliver them.]
If this is the case, it makes sense why every big, legal hit seems to be met with a "now you must fight!" response today. If no one knows what a legal check is, that every impact is cause for another show of mistaken "code" bravado.
To be sure, checking is a skill: It requires agility, physical intelligence, and situational smarts. Plus -- unless you use an elbow or Ulf Marchment(TM) knee -- quite a deal of courage. But I suspect it takes a back seat to all the other tangible skills in minor hockey. So what results is guys who can handle the puck and shoot but wouldn't know how to "bodycheck" if their life or the fate of the "hockey code" depended on it.