Friday, 30 January 2009

TBC: The Code

With the look at fighting in the NHL this past week on this blog, I thought it might be a good idea to present a book that I feel is the standard for explaining fighting in hockey and its importance in the game of hockey. The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL, written by Ross Bernstein and published by Triumph, is the one book that every single hockey fan, hockey executive, hockey parent, and hockey player should have on their nightstands. This book not only breaks down the code using examples from the NHL, Bernstein interviews the players involved in the scrums. The list of players who added a comment or story to this book is literally a "who's who" of NHL enforcers.

The forewords are written by two of the games most notable heavyweights in Marty McSorley and Tony Twist. Combined, these two men have spent 4502 minutes in the penalty box... or approximately 75 hours. Yeah, these two players know a few things about dropping the gloves. McSorley and Twist also contribute a number of anecdotes throughout the book as examples when Bernstein is describing parts of "the code". Having these two men on-board only adds credence to the code and how it works in the game of hockey.

However, the stories from the guys who did hockey's toughest job, both literally and figuratively, are littered throughout the book. Bernstein does a fabulous job in breaking down the book into four sections that really highlight the important pieces of the code. Section One deals with the history of fighting in the NHL; Section Two defines "the code"; Section Three defines what an enforcer is and what his impact on the game is; Section Four looks at how league rules and officials affect fighting; Section Five deals with how fighting in the NHL affects everyone else; and Section Six looks at the lockout in 2004 and what changes will affect the enforcers.

Section One is pretty self-explanatory. Bernstein goes over some of the more storied fights including the McSorley-Brashear incident and the Bertuzzi-Moore incident. It's interesting to hear of the more famous fights where the law had to step in. The game has always been about policing itself, yet there have been multiple times where societal law has intervened.

Section Two is all about the code itself. Players such as Kelly Chase, Mike Peluso, Stu Grimson, Rob Ray, Derek Boogaard, Paul Stewart, McSorley, and Twist all contribute to defining the code here. Remember how I said that everyone explains the code differently? Well, these men lived the code, and they have their own definitions of the code. The one theme that is constant throughout each man's story is respect and honour. And that's exactly what the code is - a set of rules to keep respect and honour in the game.

Section Three really shows what some of these men go through in terms of living the code. They played with broken hands, sprained wrists, cuts, bruises, stitches, and anything else just to keep their roster spot. The warriors quoted by Mr. Bernstein explain how they created space on the ice for the stars they played with because no one wanted to answer to them. They also kept the dirty play in check. If a player didn't answer for his dirty play, then it was open season on the opposing team's star players until someone answered the bell. The code really did work well when people weren't messing with the rules.

Section Four looks at the rule changes and the officials, and how both have worked to reduce the role of the enforcer. Dave Schultz has a great comment in this section about the instigator rule where he states,

"The rule was put in to prevent some tough guy from beating up a little guy. Well, I got news for you: it never happened and it probably will never happen. Guys fight within their weight classes for the most part in the NHL, unless somebody does something really stupid and totally deserves it. And that guy would get popped with or without the rule, so it is irrelevant."

Schultz continues,

"The instigator has taken away one of the most important elements of hockey: honor. Nowadays, instead of guys settling their differences by having a fight, guys run around cheap-shotting guys, carrying their sticks high and playing with absolutely no respect. There is no retribution now other than suspensions or fines, which is ridiculous. That doesn't solve any problems."

The aftermath of the instigator rule sees players playing with less respect now, mostly due to the fact that the instigator rule protects the guys out there playing dirty. And wasn't that entirely what the rule was designed to remove?

There's a phenomenal quote in the book in this section from ESPN's Spider Jones who, in 1996, explained how the game went from fighting to a more subtle, more vile violence. While I'm not stating that ESPN has no clue about hockey, isn't that a telling sign that the instigator rule is entirely wrong when an American writer can pen commentary about how the 1970s and 1980s were better than the hockey of the mid-1990s because there was no instigator rule?

Bernstein goes a step further by explaining how the instigator rule was put in place. Namely, one player caused the NHL to review its officiating and rules. That man was Calgary Flames defenceman Neil Sheehy. Sheehy's tactics on Gretzky during the late-1980s were legendary. While he would walk the fine line between legal and penalty with his actions, he refused to fight Semenko or McSorley because he stated he hadn't done anything outside the rules.

Once this tactic was absorbed by other teams, scoring took a dramatic dip, and the league instituted the instigator rule to try and maintain some control over guys who caused melées due to their actions. Instead, Sheehy has had a change of heart over how he played the game. In 2004, he published "The Systematic Erosion and Neutralization of Skill and Play-Making in the NHL". Sheehy, now a player agent, really makes a phenomenal argument for eliminating the instigator rule, and everyone needs to click that link and read up.

Bernstein delves deeper into the code, talking about divers, bench-clearing brawls, visors, and the linesmen and their need to know the code. All of these factors are examined in Section Four, and Bernstein does a marvelous job in bringing these stories to the forefront.

Section Five looks at how fighting in the NHL affects other leagues. Junior hockey is examined, with contrasts made between the CHL in Canada and the NCAA in the United States. There's chatter about how hockey in the south emphasizes fighting to bring in fans with promotions such as "Guaranteed Fight Night".

Bernstein also goes deep into whether or not fighting should remain in the game, with a very poignant look at fighting in youth hockey. Nearly everyone, including Ross Bernstein, feels that fighting in youth hockey is unnecessary, including this writer.

Section Six looks at how the new rules have forced teams to re-evaluate their on-ice talent, essentially removing the "goons" from the game. If an enforcer wants to be part of the game, he has to contribute on the scoresheet rather than just sitting in the penalty box. But as some players comment, the goon really only started being seen in the mid-to-late-1980s and early-1990s. Since then, enforcers such as Domi, Boogaard, and Laraque have been allowed to skate the ice on a regular shift.

As I stated yesterday, NHL owners and general managers should have this book in their offices at all times. Bernstein goes deep into the issue of fighting in hockey and explains all the nuances that lead up to a fight, as well as the fallout from those fights. While I'm not any sort of literary recognition panel, The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL doesn't shy away from the tough questions and making controversial decisions based upon evidence and reasoning. Ross Bernstein's book is absolutely the source for explaining and understanding the code in hockey, and absolutely deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval for the excellent examination of this subject.

If you're interested in the subject of fighting in hockey at all, you need to read this book. If you're interested in respect in hockey, this book must be read. I'm not one to rank books or anything, but The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL is a must-have book for anyone who loves hockey.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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