The Daily Bongo

The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL

Fisticuffs. That is how the Rule 56 in the NHL Rule Book refers to fighting. Fighting in the NHL has been the source of many news show discussions, usually coming down on the side of eliminating fighting from the sport. Those who oppose fighting remind us of the incidents with Marty McSorley (when he hit Donald Brashear in the head with his stick, resulting in a concussion for Brashear) and Todd Bertuzzi (taking a cheap shot at Steve Moore from behind, ramming his head into the ice, and fracturing Moore's neck). More current incidents include Chris Simon using his stick on Ryan Hollweg and Colton Orr knocking out Todd Fedoruk. However, there is more to the incidents listed above than the brief clips that were shown on the news shows. Ross Bernstein goes behind the scene to explain what really happens when two players drop their gloves on the ice in The Code: the Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL.

The idea for The Code started before the NHL lockout in 2004. Bernstein wanted to investigate the role of enforcers and fighting in hockey, and during the lockout and following season, he talked to several current and former hockey players to get the story behind the story. Bernstein gives us the history of fighting in North American hockey, describes what code of honor players follow, what role the enforcer plays, how the rules of the league and the officials handle fighting, and how the rest of us view fighting. As I said before, Bernstein talks to many players and has a foreword from Marty McSorley. Why is there fighting in the NHL? Fighting is there because it is a way for the players to police the game. Players who may put a dirty hit on another player will have to face retribution from others on the team. It's a way of protecting the skill players, the Gretzkys, Lemieuxs, and Crosbys of the game, and creating space for a team to play the puck and possibly score. As you read the book, you find that there are many things that lead up to a fight. One player may crowd another, push a player headfirst into the boards, slash with the stick, or use some other tactic to put the skill player off his game. The enforcer's role in the game is to make sure that the offender on the other team knows that such actions result in payback.

I really enjoyed reading the book, and it gave me a new perspective on fighting. After seeing how Sidney Crosby was getting abused earlier in the season by players who were using the stick to hurt Crosby or throw him off his game, I started to beg for the Pens to bring in an enforcer who would make people think twice before committing such acts. Now I know that there are rules of engagement. Enforcers don't randomly pick on players, and they usually pick on people their own size. For example, a heavyweight enforcer will fight another of his kind while a lighter weight enforcer on a team will take on someone smaller. Fights are done under agreement of the pair involved. With the institution of the instigator rule that gives an extra two minute penalty to the person who starts the fight, both must drop the gloves at the same time. You are expected to fight if you have done something that warrants having your butt kicked. For example, Todd Bertuzzi went after Steve Moore because in an earlier game, Moore had hit Marcus Nasland giving him a concussion. Nasland's Vancouver Canuck teammates called for Moore's head. Three weeks later, retribution was served. Although Moore had a fight with Matt Cooke in the first period of the game, Bertuzzi thought that Moore didn't pay enough. In the third period, Bertuzzi came out to fight Moore, but Moore refused. Bertuzzi then broke the code by attacking Moore, an unwilling participant, and sucker punching him from behind. Although Bertuzzi was very wrong for what he did (and in my opinion should not have been allowed to play in the NHL or Team Canada), there was rationale behind the madness. The book spells out the Code in such detail that as I watch a game now, I can see where a fight is being instigated, and how the policing takes effect. Bernstein uses a casual, informal tone in describing the Code and what it means to North American hockey.

There was a flaw with the book. Bernstein has lengthy quotes from the players that tend to disrupt the action. The book is filled with pages of boxes of quotes, and paragraphs long quotes interspersed in between the text. I think that the book would have been if the quotes had been edited or shortened. There were times when I would skim over the quotes because it just tended to become tedious. However, this is a book that I would definitely recommend to all fans of hockey so they could better understand how fights are supposed to play out in the game and the role that a fight plays in keeping the game clean from constant dirty hits on skill players. The next time you see a clip from a fight on the news, you will know that something must have happened before it that explains the fight. Chris Simon slashes at Ryan Hollweg after Hollweg checks Simon from behind into the boards, and brings his stick up to smack Simon in the face. A boarding or high sticking call that isn't made by the officials results in Simon lashing out with his stick in retribution. Of course, we only see Simon's actions and hear how bad they are. We don't look at what might have caused them. Of course, Simon wasn't right to slash at Hollweg's head with a stick, but poor judgment doesn't give Simon a free ride for breaking the Code.

Read the book, and when it happens, enjoy the fight. Understand the origins of the fight that you watch, and realize that although it sounds ridiculous, fighting makes hockey a cleaner played game.

April 6, 2007