Pardon my skepticism but I don't believe that the NHL's latest penalty-killing directive to officials -- this year's the Penalty Crackdown Wheel (TM) landed on Cross-Checking -- is likely to last any longer than most such directives. By November, NHL Hockey Ops (which is over the Officiating Department in the pecking order) will become worried by the amount of embellishment going on to buy calls on marginal cross-checks and the crackdown will quietly fizzle out.
Players will largely go back to doing what they were doing before, especially by the stretch drive and playoffs. Then will come the next crackdown du jour come September 2022 based on being reactive to some controversy that got media play during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
I've heard that song and seen that dance many times over the years. Last week on TNT, Don Koharski said that cross-checking calls will decrease significantly by November because the players will adapt. Thing is -- and Koho knows this -- that's only part of the story. Part of the adaptation, yes, is players avoiding some of the borderline ones that usually get called/not called on a 50-50 basis depending on the circumstance and play in question. The side effect of the crackdown, as I alluded to before, is more players abusing the crackdown by embellishment.
Players already know the risk as pertains to the traditional way cross-checking is defined. The arm extension, the force employed and the nature of play in question have always been the keys to a cross-checking penalty. The really egregious ones can result in a major and/or expulsion. The ones that fall within the realm of a hockey play, you let play continue.
The little push-off by an offensive player to create space, the defensive player non-violently wedging the opponent aside, two players similarly jockeying for inside position without intent of injuring one another with their sticks ; these are things that can be interpreted as cross-checking if you choose the most literal of interpretations of cross-checking. But they've never bee the spirit of the rule.
As with any rule, ask yourself this question: Why was this rule created? For safety and to keep the game fair for both sides during the course of a play. In the preseason already, I've seen penalties called on plays that pretty clearly did NOT cross either of those lines.
My own philosophy on penalty calling is that games should neither be over-officiated nor under-officiated. I went by the Frank Udvari Principle -- if you were playing in the game, would you ticked off if something happened to your teammate and went uncalled -- in feeling the pulse of the game and making calls.
It kind of amuses me (only kind of because it's an actual problem) that officials are pretty much put in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation when it comes to routine penalty calling. Call things too tight and folks gripe that "no one pays to see you referee, and you need to just let the players play." Call things too leniently and "the officials aren't calling enough penalties."
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Actually, the whole concept of "just enforce the rule book as it's written" is a laughable idea presented mostly by folks who never officiated in their lives and really don't know the rule book. The NHL Rule Book is filled with vague and/or contradictory regulations.
If the rules were to be enforced 100 percent according to the book, guess what would happen? Without exaggeration, if every little cross-check, grab, hook, slash, momentary interference, etc. were called every game, there would be 30 to 40 power plays combined. That's especially true in the playoffs where teams fight for every foot of space.
Calling it "strictly by the book" is an impracticality. There is ALWAYS interpretation and degrees of choice involved in real-life officiating. When the rule book is interpreted by only the narrowest and strictest of terms, hockey games become unplayable, unwatchable and downright dull. Trust me, no one wants to see everything that technically violates some part of the rulebook called as a penalty.
When it comes to these crackdowns -- and the 2021 Cross-Checking Crackdown isn't the first time that particular penalty has been the identified area of extra vigilance -- there's always a push-pull factor and a lifecycle. Usually it's a short-lived lifecycle and then things more or less go back to the norms; hopefully with the margins being cleaned up a little bit. It's usually more subtle than dramatic.
A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of
being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart