Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Code by Ross Bernstein (Part 1)

A few months ago I picked up a copy of Ross Bernstein’s book, The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL.  My view would not be much different than those you can find on any book review site; that it’s a repetitive book with lots of first person quotes on why fighters drop the gloves.  But in my opinion the 10 reasons he provided in chapter 3, about what prompts dropping the gloves, are pretty weak.

I read the Bernstein book just before The Good Fight by Adam Proteau to get a good comparison of opposing sides on the fighting issue.  The Code was constantly being referenced by commenters as the book to read if you wanted to understand why fighting is part of hockey.  That supposition works best for those that know nothing about the game.  If you have played and watched for a significant length of time then you know that the book does little to add any serious reasons for continuing to tolerate fisticuffs.   I wasn’t particularly swayed by a collection of anecdotes and interesting first person accounts from enforcers who justified the reason they got to play in the NHL.

In the third chapter Bernstein lists the 10 reasons why players drop the gloves.  Below I have provided my opinion on the first 5 reasons and I’ll address the remainder in a second post at a later date.

1)  Retaliation and Retribution

No argument here.  I absolutely believe that fighting is all about revenge and retaliation.  Players will hold a grudge for a couple of shifts, until the next time those teams will meet or, in some cases, for years.   Here is a comment from the book that sums it up best,

“Revenge is serious business in pro hockey, and players don’t forget about cheap shots or dirty play.  They have a long memory and will often wait as long as it takes to achieve what they believe to be justice.”

Too bad he didn’t address the decision process for the act of retribution.  There is no panel of officials who declare a player to be guilty of a cheap shot, and therefore subject to getting attacked by the team’s enforcer in the next game.  Instead the decision is made by biased and emotional individuals who drop the gloves at any incident that upsets them, his team or his coach.  This leads to minor incidents like dropping the gloves after a hard but clean hit or a face-wash in a scrum, or extreme acts of violence like Bertuzzi on Moore and McSorley on Brashear.  As long as “The Code” is held up as a reason to allow revenge, and fisticuffs are tolerated by the NHL and NHLPA with minimal penalties, then another ugly incident is only a matter of time.

2)  Swinging Momentum

Players believe that fighting has an impact on momentum because they get fired up when their enforcer starts throwing punches.  Testosterone starts flowing, they bang their sticks on the boards and cheer when the opponent goes down in a bloody heap.  The fans are standing and yelling and the coach gives the returning hero a big, “attaboy”,  The problem is that research has proven that the chances of momentum going your way is 50:50, even if you win the fight, and rarely lasts more than 3 minutes.   Even some of the quoted enforcers in Bernstein’s book admit that they have to be careful about when to fight because the results are not guaranteed.   I think it’s fair to say that players get excited about a fight because they all enjoy someone else doing the fighting.  But based on facts, and not perception, as a tactic it’s pretty useless.

3)  Intimidation

There is no doubt that fighting is used as an intimidation factor, or more accurately as a tool to back up a physically intimidating style of play.  Teams come out hitting their opponents at every opportunity knowing that if there is any retaliation then the enforcer comes off the bench to exact revenge.  But fighting is not a requirement for a team to have the ability to dominate and get into their opponents heads.  Don’t give them any space, take every opportunity to apply clean hard hitting and employ a relentless forecheck.  Let them take the penalties and make them pay with your man advantage.  A skilled team will put more fear into the competition than one made up of 4th line enforcers.

When a team uses fighting to back up their physical play then the result is usually more ice time for players who spend a lot of their careers in the press box.   The less skilled player will almost always be the ones using cheap shots to intimidate the other team, resulting in revenge and the dropping of gloves.  That’s not intimidation.  That’s dragging the other team down to your level.  

It also results in less success.  Several bloggers and hockey journalists have published studies that show teams that fight the most will generally finish lower in the standings and won’t progress as far during the playoffs.  Constantly icing a team that has too many 4th line tough guys, and giving up more man advantages over the course of the season, eventually takes its toll.

4)  Sending a Message

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

If a team is getting beaten soundly, the losing team then employs the tactic of getting into a fight at the end of the game.  That sends a message of future anxiety for certain key players who were now put on high alert.  It stops short of a bounty, but players know they are going to be targeted when they meet again.

I think the message is, “you beat me and I’m a bad loser but I can’t take the puck and go home so I’m going to start a meaningless fight in the hope that my team mates will be entertained and I might not get sent down next week.”

Future anxiety?  Bullshit.   Stops short of a bounty?  That’s something to be proud of.   Good teams send a message by dominating through skill, outworking their opponents and playing as a disciplined team.  They don’t need a sideshow to communicate.

5)  Trying to Draw a Reaction Penalty

According to The Code, using a less skilled player in an attempt to goad a highly skilled opponent into a fight is something to be proud of.  You starting skating at age 3 on a sheet of ice in your backyard, spent all of your youth at practice or tournaments and worked hard through Junior so you would get drafted into the NHL. And then you’re sent out to hack and harass a far superior player so you can both spend time in the penalty box.  I thought that the whole concept of enforcers and The Code was to prevent the cheap shots on the game’s stars and give them room to skate.

I think the enforcer could be a lot more effective in the parking lot where he can just attack the star and take him out.  How many hockey fans would cheer for that?  How quickly would the NHL and NHLPA rush to support that type of attack?  But inside an arena on a sheet of ice it somehow becomes “part of the game”.

So far the first 5 reasons either are based on myth and perception or, if you are a fan of hockey and sportsmanship, should not be tolerated by the NHL or NHLPA.   In my next post I'll take a look at the rest of Bernstein's reasons.

To be continued in The Code by Ross Bernstein (Part 2)

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