What is Cross-Checking in Hockey? Navigating the Rules

Cross-checking, a term every ice hockey enthusiast and player comes across, often finds itself at the center of heated debates within the hockey community. The debate often centers around what is cross-checking and when is it legal and when is it not? 

First of all, what is cross-checking in hockey? Cross-checking in hockey is a penalty that occurs when a player uses the shaft of the stick, held in both hands, to forcefully hit an opponent.

The controversy (and subjectivity) always comes in when judging the term ‘forcefully’. When is a player deemed to have enough force to constitute a penalty. 

In this guide to cross-checking we will look at what constitutes a cross-checking penalty (and what does not), as well as look at the 2021 NHL crackdown on cross-checking. 

Understanding Cross-Checking

At its core, cross-checking in hockey is a penalty that occurs when a player uses the shaft of the stick, held in both hands, to forcefully hit an opponent. The action, often confused with a regular body check, crosses the line when it involves an explicit push or strike with the stick and not just body contact.

T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals cross-checking his opponent – source

What Constitutes Cross-Checking?

Here are the key elements that officials look for:

  • Stick Handling: The stick must be held with both hands.
  • Contact: The stick must make contact with any part of the opponent’s body.
  • Force: The contact should be forceful, not incidental.

Typical Situations Leading to Cross-Checking Penalties

  • Battle for Puck: Players aggressively vying for puck possession often fall into cross-checking in the heat of the moment.
  • Defensive Moves: Defenders may cross-check an opponent to prevent them from advancing towards the goal.
  • Retaliatory Actions: Heated exchanges sometimes escalate, resulting in retaliatory cross-checks.

The Grey Area: When Is Cross-Checking Called as a Penalty and When Is It Not?

Cross-checking, by the book, is a prohibited action in hockey, yet not every instance of cross-check-like movement is penalized. It’s a nuanced part of the game that requires discretion from officials and an understanding of intent from both the players and fans.

Is Cross-Checking Always Called as a Penalty?

Referees are tasked with making split-second decisions on what does and does not constitute a cross-checking penalty. Here’s what they watch for:

  • Intensity: The force behind the stick’s impact is a critical factor. While strong, deliberate hits generally draw penalties, lighter taps or incidental contact might not.
  • Context: The situation on the ice—whether it’s a high-stakes moment or a routine play—can influence the referee’s judgment.
  • Visibility: Sometimes cross-checks occur out of the referees’ sightlines, leading to missed calls despite league efforts to capture every angle.

With this being said, there are definitely cross-checks that happen in the game that are not called. Some of them are ‘light’ hits to the opponent that the refs will let pass because they are not ‘forceful’ enough.

Is Cross-Checking in Front of the Net Allowed?

The area in front of the net is notorious for its scrappy skirmishes. Players jostle for position, and sticks clash, and here the rules seem most grey:

  • Some Leeway: Using a cross-check in front of the net is, technically, against the rules. However, players will be pushing the back of their opponents with their sticks. They will even give them little cross-checks to the back. They are really just trying to test the line of using force without going over it and receiving a penalty
  • Alternative Tactics: Players utilize legal body checks and stick positioning to outmaneuver opponents without resorting to penalties.

Are There Any Exceptions for Defensive Players in Terms of Cross-Checking?

In the realm of defense, players must guard their zone vigilantly but fairly. The rules for cross-checking are laid out in the rulebook clearly but refs do allow subtle cross-checks to go.

The thought goes that it is a physical game and a push or shove with the stick is fine as long as it doesn’t cause the opponent to fall to the ice or is vicious.

The 2021 NHL Cross-Checking Crackdown

In an effort to preserve player safety and uphold the integrity of the game, the National Hockey League (NHL) took a definitive stance in 2021 by enforcing stricter rules against cross-checking. This initiative was a response to concerns over players’ health and the desire to takeaway some of the greyness in the penalty calls.

Rationale for Stricter Enforcement

  • Player Safety: An increase in injuries related to cross-checking spurred the league to take action.
  • Game Integrity: By enforcing cross-checking rules more stringently, the NHL aimed to eliminate the subjectivity of previous calls.

Impacts on Gameplay and League Responses

The repercussions of this crackdown were wide-reaching:

  • Player Adaptation: Players had to adjust their playing style, focusing on cleaner checks and better stick discipline.
  • Use of Video Reviews: The league increased the use of video replay to ensure calls were accurate and consistent.
  • Feedback Loop: Coaches, players, and officials engaged in ongoing dialogues to interpret and apply the rules uniformly across the league.

Quotes from Key Figures

  • NHL Commissioner: “Protecting our players while maintaining the integrity of our fast-paced, physical game is a priority. This crackdown on cross-checking is a step towards that.”
  • Professional Hockey Player’s Association Representative: “We support measures that make the game safer without altering its fundamental nature.”

The 2021 crackdown on cross-checking helped reshape behaviors on the ice and prompted a collective effort to strike an ideal balance between maintaining the robust nature of hockey and ensuring a safe playing environment.

Penalties for Cross-Checking

In hockey, penalties serve as a deterrent to keep the game safe and fair. Cross-checking, like other penalties, carries different levels of discipline. Let’s unravel the layers of punishment that a cross-checking violation might attract.

Breakdown of Penalty Types and Assessments

The nature of the infraction determines the severity of the penalty:

  • Minor Penalty: A two-minute infraction for less aggressive cross-checking actions.
  • Major Penalty: A five-minute penalty given for violent cross-checking that could injure an opponent.
  • Game Misconduct or Disqualification: In extreme cases, players may face ejection from the game or subsequent matches.

Statistics on Cross-Checking Penalties (Fact) According to the NHL’s official statistics, in the 2021-2022 season following the crackdown, there was a 25% increase in cross-checking penalties called, illustrating the policy’s immediate effect.

The Process of Assessing Penalties

  • On-Ice Officials: Referees are tasked with monitoring and identifying infringements during the game.
  • Video Reviews: Certain penalties can be reviewed post-game for further action, such as suspensions or fines.

Table: Frequency of Cross-Checking Penalties in Recent Seasons

SeasonMinor PenaltiesMajor PenaltiesMisconducts
2020-2021400255
2021-20225004010

Note: Figures are approximate and sourced from the NHL’s disciplinary records.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cross-Checking

Q: Can goaltenders be the targets of cross-checking?
A: Yes, goaltenders can be targets, and the ref is not very lenient towards any contact with goalies.

Q: Is cross-checking ever allowed in youth hockey?
A: Cross-checking is generally prohibited (and called very strictly) in youth hockey to foster safe play habits from an early age and prevent injuries.

Q: How do referees train to identify and call cross-checking penalties?
A: Referees undergo rigorous training, including video analysis and in-game practice, to accurately identify and assess penalties, including cross-checking.

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