You don’t have to watch hockey for too long before you realize that things can get pretty physical. Ten men are flying around the ice on skates, sometimes reaching speeds of 30 miles per hour, and crashing into each other and the boards that surround the rink.
What adds to the confusion of the fastest game on earth is just what type of hitting is legal and which is not. While a hip check or a good body check on open ice or along the boards can be a great play, something like cross-checking is often called for a penalty.
But just what is cross-checking?
Cross-checking is a type of hit where a player holds the shaft of their hockey stick with both hands horizontally and uses it to forcefully hit a player from the opposing team. Because the stick is the point of contact and because it is generally a fairly dangerous play, cross-checking is typically easy to see and call as a penalty.
While spotting a cross-check and knowing that it is a no-no is pretty straightforward, there is more to it than that. Not all cross-checks are equal and some can be more severe than others.
To learn more about why players cross-check, what the different penalties are for cross-checking and what the NHL rulebook says about this serious penalty, we encourage you to read on.
What Is Cross-Checking in Hockey?
As we could see from the definition above, a cross-check is when a player grabs their hockey stick in both hands and uses it as the point of contact when hitting a player from the opposing team.
If you have ever seen a blatant cross-check you have probably realized that you don’t have to be a hockey expert to realize it is a serious penalty and can cause serious injury.
One interesting thing about cross-checking is that it isn’t a natural way to hit an opponent and is often done not out of necessity, but out of frustration.
Players who have made a mistake or been hit hard by an opponent, in an attempt to get “revenge” (either for themselves or for a teammate) are more likely to commit cross-checking than a player looking to make a clean hit.
While it is never acceptable to cross-check, and if seen by an official will almost always result in a penalty, there are several instances where holding on to the stick with both hands and making contact with an opponent is often not called a penalty.
Often, defensemen, when in their own zone and in front of the net, will hold onto their stick with both hands and push, shove or nudge an opponent (usually in the back) with their stick in a fashion similar to cross-checking.
If done forcefully enough this could be called for cross-checking, but oftentimes referees will let this type of play go as both players are jostling for position in front of the net.
What Is the Penalty for Cross-Checking in Hockey?
If a cross-check is severe enough and seen by the officials to be called, it often results in a two minute, minor penalty. Like all penalties, this will put the player’s team at a man disadvantage as they will have to only play with four players for the duration of the two-minute penalty.
The thing to watch for, however, is blood. If, while cross-checking an opponent, a player lifts his stick to the opponent’s face and draws blood, the offending player will most likely get a five-minute major penalty.
Major penalties are far more serious than minor penalties. In addition to having to sit in the penalty box for five minutes, a player that commits more than one major penalty in a game can get ejected from the game.
In some cases, cross-checking could be severe enough to warrant an immediate ejection. If the offending player has drawn blood and/or caused bodily harm to his opponent, he could even have to miss subsequent games depending on the league.
In hockey, penalties are often unofficially broken down into several different categories.
There are different kinds of penalties: good penalties where you had to stop a goal from being scored or to help out a teammate, lazy penalties where you had to commit a penalty because you were too lazy to make the correct play and dumb penalties where you commit out of “revenge” or to serve some sort of personal vendetta.
In most cases, it is generally agreed that cross-checking is a dumb penalty. One exception to any cross-checking rules and penalties can occur is if the cross-check is from behind along the boards.
If that is the case, the cross-checking penalty is not as serious as the checking from behind penalty which is one of the most dangerous penalties in hockey and most often more severe.
If checking from behind is called, depending on the severity of the penalty and the league it occurs in, a player can get anything from a two-minute minor penalty to an automatic ejection from the game.
NHL Cross-Checking Rule
According to Rule 59 in the NHL Rulebook, cross-checking is “The action of using the shaft of the stick between the two hands to forcefully check an opponent.”
Depending on the severity of the cross-check, officials in an NHL game can issue a variety of penalties, most of which we have already discussed.
The most basic type of cross-checking is a minor penalty. As the official rulebook puts it, “A minor penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who ‘cross checks’ an opponent.”
If the hit is more severe, a major penalty could be called by a referee. If the cross-check is in an attempt to deliberately hurt an opponent (as it often is, unfortunately) the referee can issue a match penalty or a game misconduct penalty.
Interestingly, in the NHL, if a player receives a major penalty for their cross-check, it is an automatic game misconduct penalty and the player is ejected from the game.
Finally, according to Rule 59.6 “If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion.” This supplementary discipline often takes the form of fines and suspensions.
One of the longest suspensions in NHL history for cross-checking occurred in 1987 when Philadelphia Flyer Dave Brown cross-checked Tomas Sandstrom—breaking Sandstrom’s jaw. As a result, Brown was suspended for 15 games.
More recently, in the NHL there have been 25 incidences since 2015 of a player cross-checking an opponent and facing discipline at the league level. In most cases, the result has not been a suspension but rather a fine.
One example of this occurred in February 2020 when the Boston Bruins Zdeno Chara was given $5,000 fine for cross-checking Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadians.
Interestingly, at the time of the infraction, Chara did not receive a major penalty and was allowed to continue playing in the game.