What Are Forechecking and Backchecking in Hockey?

An ice hockey player checking another hockey player into the boards and knocking them down. They are forechecking.

Are you ready to learn more about the great game of hockey?  Then, it’s time to discuss the strategic nuances behind one integral part of hockey strategy: the forecheck!  At its core, it’s vital to how teams compose their defensive strategy and determine how aggressively they’ll play. We’ll also explain the difference between forechecking and backchecking in hockey.

Our main objective is to discuss the fundamentals of forechecking; then, we’ll delve deeper into the key components that make a forecheck effective and explore various types of strategies and systems. So strap up your helmet, and get ready to go hard on the forecheck!

What is forechecking in hockey?

Despite what the name sounds like, forechecking is not a hit or body check; it’s a defensive system used when the opposing team has control of the puck in its own defensive zone.  It helps the defensive team regain control of the puck and transition to offense and can set the tone for their entire game.  Forechecking is a dynamic and ever-evolving strategy designed to create chaos and force a turnover.  When carried out correctly, it can swing the game’s momentum! 

A crucial element of a team’s strategy, it can dictate the pace for their overall playing style, both offensively and defensively.  Some squads rely so heavily on forechecking that their game’s outcome hinges primarily on its success.  

Keep in mind that forechecking is a system with many different variations primarily determined by positioning and aggressiveness. Therefore, consider forechecking a spectrum of pressure from passive to aggressive.  Even the lack of forechecking, where teams sit back and don’t attack the puck, can be highly effective in the right situation; then there’s going all-out and sending four players deep in the offensive zone to get the puck, and everything in between.

Why do Teams Forecheck?

Teams use forechecking to get the puck back, obviously, but there’s so much more to it than that.  When properly executed, it can wreak havoc on the opposing players and lead to forced turnovers resulting in outnumbered attacks and high-quality scoring chances. In addition, a solid and tenacious forechecking team can wear down the opposing team both physically and mentally.  

The forechecking team is the aggressor and goes in for big bodychecks along the boards that can take a physical toll on their opponents throughout 60 minutes of hockey.  If players expect to get checked into the boards every time they touch the puck, they’re more likely to rush and make a mistake. It can also get the crowd pumped up in the home arena.

In the face of an unrelenting forecheck, a team can find themselves backed into a corner with few options for escape. If a team is constantly pinned down in their defensive zone and can’t get the puck out cleanly, it can be highly demoralizing!  This continuous cycle can leave a team tired and out of breath, hurt, mistake-prone, and with no confidence.  So, as you can see, the forecheck can significantly impact a hockey game.

What are the Components of a Good Forechecking Team?

What do you need to have a good forecheck?  Several elements must happen simultaneously to come together and succeed.  This requires a tremendous amount of practice and preparation; now, let’s look at the necessary components to be successful.

  • In Sync – All five players (especially the three forwards) must be on the same page and know where their teammates are and their strategy; they must function as one unit.  The whole system can break down if one of the defenders fails at his task. 
  • Communication – Hockey is so fast that it’s hard to keep track of everyone, so the players must talk to each other while on the ice to know where everyone is and what’s happening.
  • Awareness – Everyone must know where the puck is, who the opposing team has on the ice, where everyone is, and the game situation.
  • Anticipation – This comes from preparation; the defenders on the ice must read the play correctly and anticipate where the puck is going based on where they are pressuring the offense from.
  • Discipline – A forechecking player must be aggressive, not reckless; the last thing you want is to take an unnecessary penalty.  Conversely, a passive forechecker must stay back, not attack, and let the play come to them; the players must be in the correct spot and not get caught out of position.

Aggressive or Conservative Forecheck

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why doesn’t every team always go all-out on the forecheck?”  Let’s get something straight, it doesn’t work a lot of the time.  The more aggressive the forecheckers are, the bigger the risk they take.  

Hockey is full of skilled offensive players, and they can get past the forecheckers with a couple of quick passes, a long stretch pass, or some fancy stickhandling.  So, being overly aggressive has its downfalls; it’s nice when it works, and you get a juicy turnover in the high slot, but when it doesn’t work, it can lead to outnumbered attacks and high-quality scoring chances on your goalie. Therefore, coaches must pick their spot for cranking up the aggressiveness, they can’t do it all the time, or they’ll get burned. 

Sometimes a conservative forecheck can be more effective, especially if the opposing team has higher-skill players on the ice.  This can slow the game down and clog up the neutral zone getting them out of sync and disrupting their zone entry and offense, and can force an offsides call.

When to Use Which Forecheck Strategy

Throughout a hockey game, coaches are constantly changing the forechecking strategy they use, and different lines use different tactics, so the style of play can vary from shift to shift.  Now let’s look at what factors cause a coach to change up their scheme.

Personel –  depending on who the coach sends out on the ice, they might want to change their strategy based on ability.  If one line has three high-energy guys who like to bodycheck and are less skilled, they might have a more aggressive forecheck than a highly-skilled, more offensive line that isn’t very big and doesn’t play a physical style.

Opposition – who is out on the ice for the other team; if the opposing team’s best line is out there, you might want to back off on the forecheck a little bit so you don’t get burned, and you could run a trap around center ice.  On the other hand, if a team’s less-skilled or younger players are on the ice, attacking them with a strong forecheck might force them to cough up the puck.

Game Situation – what’s the score, and how much time is left?  These are two essential questions that coaches are always aware of, among many others. So, for example, if a team is leading late in the game, they’ll play conservatively to prevent a quick breakaway or odd-man rush. But, on the other hand, if they’re trailing late in the third, they go all out and play with nothing to lose.

What is a Successful Forecheck?

There are many different ways to achieve success on the forecheck.  Obviously, creating a turnover and scoring a goal is great, but that’s rare, so we have to look at it on a smaller scale.  Ice hockey is a  game of small battles and momentum; win enough battles and get the momentum on your side, and you have a pretty good chance to come out with a win.  

Making bone-crushing hits, retrieving the puck, and getting shots on goal (Even if you don’t score) can generate some valuable momentum, especially if you’re playing in your home arena (The crowd always gets pumped up from big hits.)   An attacking forecheck can pin the opposing team down in their zone for an entire shift and wear them out, then you put your scorers on the ice, and they can take advantage of a tired defense.  Or you can draw a penalty by forcing your opponents to constantly play defense.

Playing a conservative forecheck can also be highly effective; shutting down the other team’s best players by slowing the pace down and making it hard to enter the offensive zone takes them out of their game and can frustrate them.  There are many different ways a forecheck can be successful; it depends on the game and the team.

Offensive Zone Forward Attacking Positions (F1, F2, F3)

A diagram of an ice hockey rink showing the forecheck in hockey.

When it comes to successful forechecking, good positioning is essential; let’s go over some hockey terms regarding positioning.  There are three forwards on the ice for each team: the center, left wing, and right wing.  These three must all be in sync as they read and react to the ever-changing flow of the play, so their positions must be interchangeable. 

Therefore, the first forward that enters the offensive zone, or the forward deepest in the zone, is called the “F1”, the next closest is the “F2,” and the furthest back is the “F3”; this is regardless of who the center, left wing, or right wing is.  Generally, the most defensive-minded of the forwards, usually the center, assumes the F3 role, but it doesn’t always work out like that.  


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Different Types of Forechecking Systems

Now that you know the intricacies of forechecking, let’s look at five of the most common formations.  Remember, forechecking is a spectrum of conservative to aggressive regarding how many players pressure the opposing team in their own zone and how hard they pressure.  We’ll go from the most passive to the most aggressive.

A diagram of forechecking systems in ice hockey. The spectrum ranges from passive to aggressive.

1-4 Forecheck

The 1-4 is the most conservative forechecking system; basically, you have 4 skaters playing defense.  Think of this one in football terms as the “prevent defense.”  The four skaters sit back around their own defensive zone and prevent any breakaways or big plays.  This formation is only used late in games when protecting a lead.

1-3-1 Forecheck

The 1-3-1  strategy is known as the neutral zone trap and is effective at clogging up the middle of the ice and slowing down the game’s pace.  Players in this system must have a high degree of discipline, patience, and awareness.  The F1 is around the offensive zone blue line, the F2, F3, and one defenseman are spread out across the center red line, and the other defenseman is inside their defensive zone.

It’s a counter-attacking system where defenders sit back and let the play come to them, and when the opposing player enters the neutral zone, they strike and try to force a turnover and go back on the offensive.   It’s conservative and mainly used when leading, but some coaches use this as their primary system such as the Los Angeles Kings.

1-2-2 Forecheck

The 1-2-2 is the second most used forechecking system.  It’s a fairly neutral strategy on the conservative-to-aggressive meter. However, many system variations allow coaches to use the 1-2-2 as their base formation and adjust the aggressiveness as needed.

The F1 attacks the puck carrier, and the other two forwards are high in the offensive zone, one along the boards and the other in the middle of the ice; they are trying to intercept the pass.  The two defensemen can also have many different alignments, depending on the situation.

2-1-2 Forecheck

The 2-1-2 is the most used forechecking system in ice hockey; just like the 1-2-2, it has many variations depending on the aggressiveness level of the coach. However, this formation can be risky and prone to an odd-man rush if not properly executed.  

In this alignment, there are two forwards deep in the offensive zone, F1 goes to the puck, and F2 goes to the next closest opposing player.  The third forward is high in the zone, trying to anticipate and intercept the pass.  The objective is to pressure the puck carrier and block the passing lanes. The two defensemen can either hold the line or sit back. 

3-2 Forecheck

This is the ultimate “go big or go home” forechecking system, all or nothing, there is no tomorrow (you get the point.)  The 3-2 is the most aggressive formation; it’s incredibly high-risk/high-reward and can give up big plays, odd-man rushes, and breakaways.

The 3-2 is used late in games when you’re trailing and desperate.  All three forwards are deep in the offensive end, applying pressure and creating chaos to force a turnover or a loose puck that leads to a scoring opportunity.  The two defensemen are in the attacking zone, ready to pinch and hold the puck in the zone.

What Does Dump and Chase Mean?

The dump-and-chase is a play in hockey where a player shoots the puck into the offensive zone, and his teammates try to recover it.  Teams use the dump and chase when they’re having trouble entering the offensive zone with control of the puck due to the defensive team clogging up the neutral zone or standing up at the blue line. 

Instead of trying to stickhandle around the defender or make a high-risk pass, they can shoot the puck all the way down in the offensive zone, and then forecheck to try and get it back. Once the puck enters the zone, the attacking team starts forechecking and skates their butts off to try and get the puck back. 

The 2-1-2 is a common formation used with the dump-and-chase. The team sends two forwards deep in the offensive zone to regain possession of the puck; the F1 hits and ties up the puck carrier along the boards (they must be careful not to take an interference penalty), while the second forward digs the puck out and gets possession, and the third forward is high in the zone supporting the defensemen so they can pinch if needed. 

The dump-and-chase best suits lower-skilled players who rely on their energy and physicality.  Even though you usually don’t get the puck back immediately, it’s better than a turnover in the middle of the ice.  This is one way to get around the trap. Most teams use the dump and chase at some point in every game and at all different levels and leagues of hockey.

What is a Backcheck?

A backcheck is when a defender (The team without the puck) chases down the opposition from behind and makes a defensive play on the puck.  They apply pressure and try to create a turnover.  Backchecking is all about hustle; you must catch the opposition from behind and muscle them off the puck.

Why is Backchecking Important?

Backchecking is vital to a team’s defensive performance.  Pressuring the puck carrier may cause the opponent to rush and make a mistake, resulting in a turnover and going back on offense.  An effective backcheck can also take the opposing players out of their rhythm and cause them to dump the puck in the zone instead of entering it with possession.

What’s the Difference Between Forechecking and Backchecking in Hockey?

Sometimes the terms forecheck and backcheck get confused with each other, maybe because they sound similar, but they are different.  They are loosely related because if the forecheck fails, it turns into a backcheck as the forecheckers have to turn around, skate hard back to their own defensive zone, and try to gain possession of the puck. 

Both terms involve applying pressure, but forechecking pressures the opposition in their own zone, and backchecking is chasing them down from behind. One of the best back checkers was Henrik Zetterberg of The Detroit Red Wings.

One of the reasons these terms are related is the phrase “Forecheck, backcheck, paycheck.” Made famous by the lovable characters Riley and Jonesy from the cult-classic show Letterkenny.  If you like Letterkenny, check out our fan section with hilarious quotes and other fun stuff about Wayne and the guys!

Final Thoughts on Forechecking in Hockey

By now, it’s clear that the forecheck is a powerful tool for coaches, enabling them to decide how they want their team’s game to unfold. For example, playing with higher aggressiveness will create fast-paced and wide-open games; conversely, a passive style can lead to slower-paced games where it’s tough for opponents to enter the zone. One style is not better than another. Ultimately, whatever strategy is used can set the tone for the entire game, making it a significant part of any coach’s strategy!

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