In the second part of examining fighting in hockey, we need to bring about some understanding of "the code". What is it? Where does one gain this knowledge? How does one interpret the code? These questions are the very basis of the entire premise behind fighting in hockey. To know the code is to know the very reasons why fighting in hockey is an important part of the game. As I stated yesterday, enforcers in the NHL live by the code the same way that Marines live by their code - namely "Unit, Corps, God, Country". It is their livelihood, and they live by the code that dictates how the game is played.
Let me be clear: the code is not written down anywhere. You won't find it in any manual or hockey 101 book, and you certainly will have a number of people explain it differently according to how they know the code. The code, like the game of hockey itself, evolves. It changes depending on each situation and the factors in that situation. What the everyone can agree on, though, is that the code is a set of rules that separate right from wrong.
With that in mind, let's take a look at specific reasons that a fight might take place within the rules of "the code".
Make no mistake, this is the reason that fights break out most often. Middleweights and heavyweights will go after a player who commits a dirty play, especially if that play results in an injury to a star player. Most often, teams will respond immediately. A good example of retaliation for a dirty play would be the New York Islanders' reaction to the hit Dale Hunter put on Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs.
This is the second reason that fights break out in the NHL. Scorers help teams win. When teams are successful and winning, fans come out to see the team play. With the team being successful, the chances of winning the Stanley Cup go up. Protecting star players is vitally important to a hockey club. Watch Marty McSorley go after Jim Peplinski after Peplinski grabbed Gretzky.
Guys routinely came into the NHL and searched out the unofficial heavyweight champion of the NHL. Whether it was Bob Probert, Joey Kocur, Tie Domi, Marty McSorley, or Georges Laraque, someone who wants to be taken seriously as a tough guy will head right for the biggest dog in the yard and take it to him. By doing this, he was sending a message to the league that this new player will not be intimidated by anyone, nor will he allow anyone to intimidate his teammates. The best example would be the first fight between Bob Probert and a relatively unknown Link Gaetz. Gaetz of the San Jose Sharks made himself known by giving Probert a run for his money.
This is probably a well-known reason, but these fights rarely happen any longer due to free agency and the league cracking down on any sort of premeditated vengeance. However, the 1990s saw bad blood rise between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche. Thanks to the 1996 Western Conference Final where Slava Kozlov drove Adam Foote's face into the boards, followed by Claude Lemieux driving Kris Draper face-first into the boards from behind, 1997 saw the bad blood boil over between these two teams.
Now that we've seen four common examples of why fights occur in the NHL, let's look at what the code states in terms of the rules of engagement.
1. Heavyweights only fight heavyweights. This is pretty much a no-brainer. Heavyweights don't go after smaller, skilled players or middleweights without just cause. If you're an enforcer, you only fight enforcers. Middleweights can fight up, but they cannot go after skilled players without just cause either. Fighters fight, and scorers score... unless something changes. Oh, and goalies only fight goalies. Otherwise, they are pinned to the ice. No one wants to punch a guy who is dressed head-to-toe in protection.
The code is about respect and fairness. You wouldn't want to see the 6'6" Derek Boogaard fight the 5'7" Brian Gionta. That's a mismatch, and the code states that you do not embarrass a guy in a fight. If you do, someone could certainly do the same to you later on. And if you develop a reputation as someone who embarrasses people in a fight, you'll find that a lot more enforcers will come gunning for you.
2. All fights are mutually agreed upon. Unless the fight is an emotional outburst, the code states that a fight is agreed upon by two competitors. Normally, the discussion will take place during a faceoff, and the fight will occur shortly after. If a player refuses to fight, he had better have a good reason. Otherwise, the code states if a player is challenged due to one of the above reasons for fighting, he should accept.
For those that refuse to fight, that may cause problems for someone else on that player's line or the team. And if a player continually ducks out of fights, his toughness and abilities may be questioned... not to mention his manhood. Again, it's about respect. If a player is willing to engage another player in a fight, the honourable thing to do is to step up and defend one's honour and teammates.
3. Injuries and coach's rules trump the code. The first reason that is acceptable for not accepting a challenge is if a player is injured. There is no honour in fighting someone who is hurt as the injury may result in a serious disadvantage for the injured player. The second reason is that a player has been instructed not to fight by his coach. If a player doesn't do what his coach says, it could result in watching a lot of hockey from the press box. In either case where a player cannot fight, the player who refuses the fight should issue a "raincheck" for a future encounter. His honour and toughness will not be questioned if he accepts a future engagement.
Both of these reasons are about respect and fairness. Again, reputations are made by what is done on the ice, and fighting guys who are hurt shows a distinct lack of backbone. Fighting guys who are not allowed to fight as per their coaches will only result in fighting an angry player who may take you to task if you do.
4. Always fight fresh, and never fight tired. The code states that you fight a fresh guy as opposed to a guy who is heading to the bench at the end of a shift. How spineless is it to fight a guy who just gone up and down the ice at top speed for a minute?
Talk to the player, and give him a heads-up that the next time he's fresh on the ice, you'd like to scrap him. If he honours the code, he'll accept. By doing this, you're respecting the code by showing respect and fairness for the other player. Good fighters know that fighting a player who is tired will only bring more retribution.
5. If you do something stupid, man up and take it. Sometimes, bad things happen. A seemingly clean hit can turn into a devastating injury simply through mistiming or a missed step. If you lay an elbow into the head of an opposing player by accident, man up and fight if challenged.
Again, it shows everyone that you respect the game, and that you're willing to pay for doing wrong. Players keep track of who the dirty players are and which guys turtle when it comes to paying for their actions. If you're a turtler, you better believe someone is going to come for blood when you do something bad.
6. Fight fair. This is pretty simple, but I'll give you Tyler Durden's rules in terms of fighting fair.
"If someone yells 'stop', goes limp, taps out, the fight is over". There is no need to throw a guy to the ice, slam him into the boards, or take his legs out from under him so he falls backwards. Fight until one of you needs to stop, and then break cleanly. Otherwise, keep chucking knuckles, and respect your opponent.
"Only two guys to a fight." Again, pretty simply. One-on-one scraps prevent any sort of disadvantage from forming. Again, respect your opponent, and tell any third man in to take a hike. And always face an opponent. Never, ever jump a guy from behind.
"Fights will go on as long as they have to." This one is tough since the linesmen can step in at any time if they feel one player has an advantage over the other player. However, if rules #1 and #4 are taken into consideration, any fight should last 30 seconds up to a full minute. However, once one player slows down, the fight is over. I can't stress this enough: you do not embarrass your opponent, especially when he's tired.
Again, these rules evolve and change according to the situation, but these six rules are fairly easy to understand. I'd hope that everyone agrees that these rules are the basics when it comes to the code. I think the best person to explain it is Stu Grimson. I found this video on YouTube, and it really speaks volumes as to the guys who know the code, and respect the other guys who carry on the tradition of the code.
Should there be anything added? Do you think this covers it all? Like I said, it's an unwritten set of rules that determine right from wrong when it comes to players policing themselves. There is no absolute rights or wrongs, but the code allows for growth and change as it evolves along with the game.
Tomorrow, the examination of the role of the enforcer in today's game, and if the enforcer even has a role in the NHL. Will guys like Georges Laraque and Riley Cote be nothing more than trivia answers in the future? I'll look at that tomorrow!
Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!