Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Code by Ross Bernstein (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my review of Ross Bernstein’s book, The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL.  In part one I provided my opinion on the first half of his presentation of 10 reasons about what prompts dropping the gloves.  Here in part two I’ll address reasons 6 to 10 and provide an alternative view.

From Chapter 3 in The Code, here are the other reasons for dropping the gloves, as stated by Bernstein. 

6) Deterrence 

Of all of the reasons provided by Bernstein, this is the one that is the weakest in terms of factual evidence yet has the strongest emotional support of players, coaches and most hockey executives.  The hockey culture has brainwashed it’s participants into ignoring facts, experience and history, and they continue to spout the message of “policing the game”.
Time and time again Bernstein presents quotes from enforcers about how they calm the game down.  Just their presence on the bench, or during a brief shift, is enough to convince the cheap shot artists and agitators that they should just take the night off.  What a load of crap.  There are almost as many quotes from these same players who go on to tell us how they roughed up a star player, used their shifts to try to intimidate the other team or just simply started a fight to “send a message”.   Look at most game summaries where a team has started more tough guys than usual and you’ll generally discover that either the enforcers were handing out dirty hits or their teammates are hiding behind them while they engage in cheap shots.  And then the other team retaliates.  So much for deterrence.
I’ve presented facts that show fighting actually results in more violence elsewhere on this site (Additional Statistics on the Impact of Fighting) but most pro-fight fans either ignore them or dismiss stats with the popular, “you’ve never played the game”.  I would like these same fight fans to review some history.  Through the 80’s the enforcer enjoyed their highest period of employment.  So violence should have been at an all-time low and cheap shot artists or agitators would have been an endangered species.
But nothing could be further from the truth.  The game was full of slashing, elbows, spearing and ugly bench clearing incidents.  And hiding behind all those enforcers were the dirty players who carried their sticks high and went head hunting at will, knowing that there was a goon on the team to protect them.  No one was better at carving up an opponent with his stick than Bobby Clarke, who was protected by the Broad Street Bullies.  Ulf Samuelsson, Dave Brown, Ken Linesman, Dave Schultz, Claude Lemieux and Dale Hunter didn’t alter their style of play.  In fact it allowed more dirty play because these players knew they were protected by the huge guy on the end of the bench.
Fighters are enablers of violence, not deterrents.
7)  Job Security
So fighting exists so that fighters can interrupt the flow of a game by fighting in order to keep their spot on the roster.  Wow that makes a lot of sense…to the enforcer.
8)  Protection
The Code states that enforcers do what their name implies – they protect key people.   From the book:
For the most part fighters are there to keep the peace and protect their skill players.  They keep watch over the stars and allow them to skate with freedom.

Bernstein uses the examples of Gretzky being protected by McSorley and Semenko, as well as Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne who were able to soar to new heights because of Stu Grimson.  I’ve already addressed both these examples in my post Enforcers “Protect” Their Teammates.  This is more myth and perception that is not supported by the facts.  The only thing that the stars were protected from was having to drop the gloves unless they wanted to.  In most cases the enforcer is sent over the boards to fight the other team’s enforcer, relieving top players on both teams from having to retaliate.

The biggest example of failed logic comes from linking Edmonton’s glory years to the importance of fighting, as stated in this quote:

Believe it or not, the league averaged twice as many fights during the late 1980s, Edmonton’s glory days, than it did during the early 70’s, the era of the Broad Street Bullies.  For the Oilers, more fights meant more success on the ice.

Somehow Bernstein believes that because the entire league was bulking up on fighters, and because teams were dropping the gloves on a regular basis, this violence was one of the reasons for Edmonton’s success.   Five minutes of research would have turned up the following stats:

·         1983-84, ranked 20th in fights
·         1984-85, ranked 18th in fights
·         1985-86, ranked 8th in fights
·         1986-87, ranked 19th in fights

Gee, maybe Edmonton won 4 Stanley Cups in a row because they were LESS likely to drop the gloves.  Or maybe Bernstein had it right.  Because the rest of the league was busy sending enforcers over the boards, the Oilers skill was picking them apart, both at even strength and on the power play.  Fighting added little to nothing to the making of the Edmonton dynasty.
9)  Prison Justice
This reason makes as much sense as Job Security.   “I’m a rookie and I’m in the NHL because I’ve made a career choice to punch other players in the head.  So I better establish a reputation early by taking on as many tough guys as possible.”  What does this have to do with hockey?  Why would any professional sport allow this kind of behaviour to impact their image?
10)  Bad Blood
From the book:

The 10th and final season for fighting in hockey is plain old bad blood.  When two players have a personal feud with one another, they are allowed to settle their differences on the ice like men.

What other professional sport would allow two players to interrupt play with an undisciplined act of violence, or sometimes whole teams in a bench-clearing brawl, just because they have some personal grudge?  I have trouble believing that the NHL would use this argument in supporting their high tolerance of fighting in the game.  It’s childish behaviour and wouldn’t be allowed on any school playground by officials in charge.

Another quote from the book:
Fighting and retaliation are synonymous with bad blood, which has been a part of the game since its inception more than a century ago.  It fuels the soap opera that is at the core of every great rivalry and leaves the fans begging for more.

I think Bernstein is overstating his case here.  Yes fighting and retaliation has been tolerated in the game for 100 years but he overlooks the fact that fighting as a tactic, and enforcers occupying a roster spot, are a more recent phenomenon.  Prior to the mid-1970s fights were far more rare and players fought their own battles.  One thing he nails is the concept of enforcers and retaliation is more soap opera than sport.

Too many people hold up “The Code” as some highly principled set of rules that elevates the game and the role of enforcers.   A large group of pro-fighting supporters will argue that playing according to “The Code” makes the game safer and promotes respect.  But reality doesn’t support their argument.  Despite the ever enduring role of the enforcer we continue to see ugly incidents, cheap shots, dirty hits and increased violence when they drop the gloves.  And a book made up primarily of first person quotes about how goons beat up on each other isn’t going to change that reality.


  1. One thing you aren’t considering in your analysis of Edmonton is the division they played in. For example, in ‘83/’84, Edmonton landed in the middle of the pack for fights. But, in the whole Smythe division of EDM, CGY, WPG, VAN, LAK, there was only a total of 475 fights. Compare that to the Norris division of MIN, STL, DET, CHI, TOR, where there were a whopping combined 540 fights. (As an aside, where did you get your fight statistics? I find that Edmonton was 11th in fights for ‘83/’84.). As a second comparison, the Patrick division of 6 teams combined for only 473 fights. While the Edmonton team lead the league in points and goals, Boston (Norris) and NY Isles (Patrick) were tied for second in points. Since most games occur within a teams division, the nature of opposing teams is a huge consideration. The Big Bad Bruins of the 80s had intimidation (a viable strategy in any hockey league, across any era) in spades, and the Canadiens, Nordiques, North Stars, and Sabres responded in kind, and all five teams placed higher on fight totals than the Oilers.

    Unfortunately, “intimidation” is not quantifiable. So for teams like the Bullies who would hit you for looking at Bobby Clarke the wrong way, the Bruins who would hit you for wearing a Canadiens jersey, there is no data showing the success of your intimidation against the success of any other team. By the same token, while Grimson and McSorley have very little determinable data showing that Selanne/Kariya and Gretzky were better players with henchmen (and yes, Gretzky was and would have been great with or without McSorley. He’s freaking Wayne Gretzky.), if an opposing player says “I shouldn’t hit the star player, or I’ll get knocked out”, the henchman’s job is done without having to drop the gloves, and his fight totals will go down (as you yourself have said, Grimson’s totals went down on the Ducks, and Semenko mostly fought other enforcers.).

    As for bad blood, every sport involves personal and teamwide rivalries, including football, basketball, and baseball, where in fact the benches can clear if a pitcher intentionally throws up and in on a star hitter (sounds like a cheap shot to me). Baseball doesn’t love dugout clearing incidents, but it happens, gets dealt with between the players, and is not quickly forgotten by either team.

    I still agree with you that hockey needs to be safer, however I think a total abolition of fighting is short sighted and dangerous. In my opinion, fighting needs to have a heavier penalty than just a five minute major, for example a one period misconduct (players sit out the remainder of the period, then the full next period). Fighting is still an option as a deterrent or a means of retribution, but you would be setting your team at a severe disadvantage by forcing your teammates to skate and cover your missing shifts. A better way to make the game safer would be to focus on headshots and other dangerous hits.

    1. Most fighting is done by players who only play a few minutes per game, so the need to cover their shifts is trivial, and not a deterrent.

      Moreover, fighting is a series of headshots. So saying "focus on headshots, not fighting" is misdirective, because FIGHTING IS HEADSHOTS.