Weinlanguage: W. Hockey Should Legalize Body-Checking

The refereeing in the Harvard women’s hockey team’s 2-1 victory over Dartmouth was as inconsistent as the English department’s treatment of Tom Paulin. Seventeen penalties were called that Friday. Five were for body-checking. The NCAA officials could make the ref’s jobs a whole lot easier with one simple rule change: allow body-checking.

This will have two major benefits.

First, it will make refereeing more consistent, letting the women know precisely how much contact is allowed.

“Before games, I consciously make myself aware of who the refs are so that I can adjust my game accordingly,” said senior defenseman Pamela Van Reesema.

Second, it will make the game more exciting, as the players will be allowed to compete more aggressively. It will intensify rivalries.

For example, in last year’s Frozen Four semifinal, Brown defeated Minnesota in an extremely rough contest. In a USCHO.com sidebar, both Brown coach Digit Murphy and Frozen Four MVP Kristy Zamora endorsed checking in women’s hockey.

“We wanted to come out and hit them hard and hit them early,” Murphy said. “Luckily the ref let us play.”

Murphy was clear in her preference for this style of hockey.

“Hockey purists would say keep it out of the game, but if you ask all the players, I think they’d like to play check,” Murphy said. “I think it would make it a little more definitive.”

Zamora’s endorsement was slightly more conditional.

“Personally, I like the checking game better,” Zamora said. “I don’t know if you want hits all over the ice, but I think you need a little more leniency like you saw tonight—let some contact go.”

The Rock ’Em Sock ’Em aspect of hockey has long been appealing to fans of the men’s game. Many fans, myself included, often prefer to see bone-crushing hits over fancy goals.

Harvard women’s hockey coach Katey Stone disagrees.

“I think [checking] disrupts the game,” Stone said. “It would be better if we didn’t see clutching and grabbing—let the puck do the work.”

Stone cited a tremendous increase in the number of injuries in women’s hockey as another reason for opposing any rule change.

Freshman forward and Olympic silver medalist Julie Chu agrees with her coach.

“Non-checking in women’s hockey is a great thing,” Chu said. “It makes players develop their skills more, as opposed to just having good size and using your body. You have to have passing and stickhandling ability and an all-around game, not just size in order to play.”

Harvard captain Angela Ruggiero sees logistical problems in allowing checking in women’s hockey.

“Girls are starting to play at a younger age,” said Ruggiero, an Olympic silver and gold medalist. “Whether or not [checking is allowed] at the college level depends if the [youth leagues] want to implement it.”

But how does she feel about it?

“Personally, I wouldn’t mind, because it would bring a lot to my game, for sure,” said Ruggiero, arguably the strongest women’s hockey player on the planet.

Diminuitive sophomore forward Kat Sweet has mixed opinions.

“There’s definitely advantages [to allowing checking],” Sweet said. “I think it’s more exciting with a lot of hitting and contact, and I know a lot of the girls on our team don’t mind that at all—we play pretty aggressively anyway.”

Ultimately, Sweet concluded that adding checking is not necessary. Captain Jennifer Botterill came to a similar conclusion.

“I think our game is great the way it is,” Botterill said. “It’s a pure game. There’s skill, speed, finesse—but it’s still a physical game. [Without checking] the best aspects of the game are accentuated.”

I must disagree. Checking does not disrupt the game—it is part of the game. Allowing checking will not diminish the skill level of the game because checking is itself a skill.

What’s strange to me is why women play with different rules in hockey and lacrosse. Women’s rugby and wrestling operate with the exact same rules as their male counterparts. Ask any women’s rugby player or wrestler—they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’d also be insulted by the insinuation that their games involve less skill, as would any men’s hockey or lacrosse player.

“Don’t you want to see these great bursts of speed?” Stone said. “To me, seeing the puck move fast and seeing people jump into holes is what it’s all about.”

Pretty goals on nice passes are great. But players have always adapted to hitting in the men’s game. Smaller players have learned how to survive and, occasionally, thrive.

If anything, the European invasion has shown that even in the era of 250-pound behemoths, skills matter. Players adjust their skills to compensate for the checking, making the fancy goals all the more impressive.

More importantly, it is inconsistent to oppose hitting in women’s hockey while supporting hitting in men’s hockey. The assumption behind this argument is that men should risk more injuries to play an aesthetically less-pleasing game. Men and women should play by the same rules—and those rules should allow checking.

—Staff writer David A. Weinfeld can be reached at weinfeld@fas.harvard.edu.