1st Year Checking is a unique approach to a sports documentary in that it isn’t about solving the endemic brain injury problem in youth hockey. The filmmaker, Michael Messner, is an ice-hockey devotee and little-league coach. Each year, he helps teach preteens how to “check,” which is the hockey term for when a player on defense purposefully collides with an offensive player in possession of the puck. Checking is one of ice hockey’s most iconic elements, adding an element of brutality to the game that is inseparable from its popularity. It also results in broken bones, concussions and an undeniable culture of violence on the ice.
Messner made 1st Year Checking because, despite his love of the game, he had a new internal conflict on his team. His 12-year-old son, Grayson, fresh out of the pee-wee league, is about to enter a whole new world. “I’m tasked with turning boys into men,” Messner says, “But I also have to protect them.”
Unlike most documentary filmmakers that might speak to physicians and incorporate footage of preteens failing concussion exams due to encounters on the ice, Messner never takes the stance that checking should be outlawed from the game. The film offers very few solutions, really, for the severe injuries, beyond adding on-site EMTs to check on kids who don’t feel right after a big hit. Messner laments the role coaches have to play in keeping kids out of the game, which is complicated by the fact that kids don’t always immediately feel the effects of a concussion or fracture.
In training and game footage, Messner encourages his team to check properly and frequently. Again, the concept of checking is inseparable from the game. It isn’t simply the case of Messner being unable to separate his love for the game from concerns about his kid’s safety. The young men embrace checking. Being allowed to check at age 13 gives them an aggressive outlet. Injuries are most common within the first year of athletes being allowed to check because they lack self-control. How can you speak candidly about the harm done to young men playing hockey when the appeal of the game is predicated on it? How can you really dive deep into the damage of checking when you’re also out there every evening teaching kids, and your own son, to fight for the puck?
That conflict is what makes 1st Year Checking interesting. Whether intentional, it’s fundamentally about the culture around hockey that perpetuates the practice. Messner briefly mentions his daughter, whose women’s hockey league lacks checking and instead relies on fundamentals like teamwork, passing and good skating. He mentions it’s one of the most beautiful games of hockey he’s ever seen, but he never argues that the men’s league adopt such rules. He sees his job as turning boys into men. Checking is a massive part of that ritual.
Indeed, Messner’s biggest concern with checking is whether it might make Grayson want to quit. He shows Grayson video playbacks of games where the boy chose not to check too hard or didn’t fight back enough when a defensive player was moving at him. Grayson never seems enthusiastic in these sequences; in some, he’s on the verge of tears and asks his dad to stop recording him. In the film’s most awkward scene, Grayson’s mother confronts him, on camera, about whether he wants to “be there for his team” or not.
I can’t imagine recording my son crying as my wife and I lecture him, and releasing that footage publicly. There are definitely questions to be asked about the ethical nature of recording your kid crying while you yell at them. But then, those scenes in 1st Year Checking get to the heart of what keeps checking alive: Not only do the young men embrace it, so do the parents.
This is a documentary that seems to start as a concerned father’s look at what ice hockey might do to his son and ends up being a movie about a man who accepts he can’t change anything about it — and doesn’t want to, either. His main goal is making sure his son wants to continue playing the sport and that other families want their sons to keep playing. Messner’s closing thought is simply frustration that he can’t teach his team hockey while also protecting them physically.
He’s not alone in this, though. Every one of the players he depicts required at least one concussion exam. Some of them failed. None of the parents he interviews talks about pulling kids out. They, too, fret about how hard it is to balance support for their sons and fears for their physical health. None of the physicians or higher-up coaches he talks to about checking has any solutions, either. All of them love the sport at its best, hate the sport at its worst and kind of just shrug about it being what it is.
Checking is here to stay in ice hockey because nobody will do anything about it. Nobody can do anything about it. The gladiatorial element is structural to the sport for men. Messner and the families of male ice-hockey teenagers know that going in. They can lament all they want, but all of them have accepted that trips to the hospital are part of the deal.
What makes 1st Year Checking feel special is that it’s a view from the inside of a culture of violence that will never change, no matter how much research is conducted or how many injuries are witnessed. Showing that inability to change despite knowing the costs feels almost transgressive in the world of sports documentaries. It’s also incredibly relevant as most of the world suffers due to the actions of those who will not change their ways in the face of a larger social need. It may be sad and frustrating, but at least it’s honest.