Skip to main content

Why Can't the NHL Purge Itself of Crosschecking?

The debate over whacks to the back came to the forefront on opening night in Toronto, but the reality is that the casual crosscheck has been a defensive strategy for a long, long time.

There seems to be this notion outside The Center of the Hockey Universe™ that when the Toronto Maple Leafs act as the squeaky wheel, the NHL is only too happy to apply the grease. Despite the fact that the league actually rents office space in the Scotiabank Arena building, it’s a ridiculous notion. If the league were so enmeshed with the Leafs, the franchise would not have gone more than 50 years without winning a Stanley Cup and Wayne Gretzky would have been called for highsticking on Doug Gilmour in 1993, the last time the Maple Leafs truly almost came close to winning something.

(The one very notable exception to this rule is in the fact that the NHL remains the only professional league in the world to have one franchise operating in its most fertile market. Despite the occasional entreaties, the Maple Leafs have the largest hockey market in the world all to themselves, something that gives those plucky underdogs a puncher’s chance of competing.)

But if the league’s head office wants to pick up the torch on crosschecking after the Maple Leafs complained about it following their season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, we’d be more than happy to live with that. Apparently, crosschecking in the NHL was not a problem until Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews took some carbon fiber to the ribs courtesy Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber Wednesday night. It became a talking point when the Leafs used their massive platform to advocate for change the next day, essentially requesting the league show some consistency on the issue.

Well, we hate to break it to you all, but crosschecking was epidemic in the NHL long before the opening night of the 2020-21 season. Anyone who has watched any amount of NHL hockey for, say, the past five seasons, would be able to tell you that. It continues to boggle the mind that a forward goes to the front of the net, and in clear view of a referee who has presumable read the NHL rulebook once in a while, has to endure multiple crosschecks to the back in an effort to establish position.

There is one of two things happening here. Either the referees are truly incompetent (not buying that one) or there is a systemic approach from the league level that directs them to not call it (far more likely). And that’s fine. If you want to discourage goal scoring that much and allow the law of the jungle to prevail, have at it. But then you’ll have to remove it from the rulebook.

This whole debate is actually ridiculous. Since this issue has come up, we’ve heard such inane statements as, “How much crosschecking are we prepared to accept?” Hey, here’s a crazy idea. How about none? When do we want it called? Just spit balling here, but how about all the time, regardless of the time of the game, the score and how important the game is in the overall scheme of things? Let’s put a premium back on body position, boxing out and hockey smarts. And if it results in more tap-ins being scored by forwards who go to the net, is that really such a bad thing?

A couple of years ago, the casual slash was something that players had to accept as an occupational hazard. And if you happened to be one of the league’s more gifted players, you had to go into every game knowing you’d probably have to endure more whacks to your wrists and forearms than other players. But the league has cracked down on that because some of the world’s best players were breaking their wrists and hands. It’s time to do exactly the same thing with the casual crosscheck. But it apparently is a really difficult sell in a league where former players – many of whom made a very good living using those kinds of tactics – hold the levers of power. Just ask Mike Bossy, who will go down in history as one of the greatest goalscorers of all-time and one of who scored 50 goals for nine straight seasons until back woes drove him out of the game after his 10th.

Try to watch a game this season where there aren’t double digit crosschecks applied. You won’t be able to do it. It kills offense, it wears down offensive players and it gives defensemen who are lacking in defensive coverage skills an advantage they don’t deserve. It’s high time for it to end. It likely won’t happen, even on the heels of bellyaching from the league’s highest-profile franchise, but we can hope, can’t we?


2022 IIHF World Championship

Men's World Championship Roundup: Eventful Sunday Sets up Wild Run to Finish

There's still a lot on the line heading into the final two days of round-robin play at the men's World Championship after a wild Sunday.


Binnington Injury Shows How Important Goalie Depth is in Playoffs

For most NHL teams, losing your starting goaltender to an injury in the Stanley Cup playoffs is about as catastrophic as it gets. For the Blues, they're hoping their depth can keep them afloat.


Maple Leafs Sign Giordano to Two-Year Contract Extension

The Toronto Maple Leafs are brining back Mark Giordano on a two-year contract extension.