Saturday, 9 February 2013

An Alternate View of The Code in Hockey

There were several articles published this week, and quite a few tweets sent, that talked about “The Code” and its place in Hockey.  The incident that prompted this week’s activity was a fight between Raffi Torres and Jamal Mayers.  Many saw the bout as proof that fighting is necessary and that “The Code” was honored by both players.  I saw it as a simple case of revenge and wondered why anyone would see this as positive for the image of the sport.

Prior to the game between the Chicago Black Hawks and Phoenix Coyotes on February 7th there were numerous stories and tweets about this being the first meeting of the two teams, with Torres in the lineup, since Torres had knocked out Marion Hossa with a vicious check.  The tone of most of this activity was all about how Torres would be made to pay.  Forget the fact that the league had already disciplined him via a 21 game suspension, unusually long by NHL standards.  Everyone knew that at some point in the game there would be a fight.

The day after the game there were a couple of key items that caught my attention.  The first was a tweet from Liam Maguire, sending out a link to a summary of the Hawks-Coyotes game and expressing the opinion that reading it would remove all doubt about the value of a hockey fight.  Our exchange is included below…


Based on past interactions it would be obvious that Maguire and I don’t agree on the need for fighting in the game.  I freely admit that my reply was an attempt to get a reaction but I think my point was valid.  I read the article and saw nothing in it that would prove the “value of fight”. 

You would have to read between the lines, or perhaps be enamoured of the cult surrounding “The Code”, to come away with a couple of messages.  The first is that NHL players get excited by a fight and the reward of a long-awaited anticipated revenge.  That would be evidenced by Patrick Kane’s comment about “getting chills”.   The other message, the one that I referred to in my initial tweet to Maguire, was that the Hawks felt the Torres-Mayers bout motivated the Hawks to a win.  A quote from Patrick Sharp seemed to confirm my viewpoint:

"It’s one thing to get in a fight in the heat of the moment. But to think about it for a while and know it’s coming is another problem all in itself,” Sharp said. “It gave us a lot of energy, brought us together as a team and definitely was a result of us playing better afterward.”

If you are a believer in “The Code” then the real message from this article was that players will police the game themselves.  Doesn’t matter if you are penalized or disciplined by the league, you will at some point have to answer for your actions on the ice.  Everyone who understands “The Code” knew that Torres would have to answer for his hit on Hossa.  Most casual fans would have expected a fight simply because they understood the concept of revenge in hockey.

Two other articles on “The Code” were published after this game and both used the Torres-Mayers fight as a way to explain how NHL players applied it within the sport.   Justin Bourne, a writer that I respect, put his support about the incident in a post titled, When it comes to fighting in the NHL “The Code” isn’t perfect, but it was last night.   Bourne has played some professional hockey and does a good job at trying to explain “The Code” and why Mayers challenging Torres was the correct thing to do in order to settle a score.  A longer discussion of a number of issues surrounding “The Code” was provided by Stu Hackel and titled, The Code debate about fighting in NHL rages on.  He attempts to provide both sides of the argument, for and against “The Code”, and points how the league has to walk a fine line in both supporting it and controlling the game.  I would suggest that you read both and form your own impressions.

My opinion on the “The Code” is very different from the fight fan, the sympathetic sports media and NHL executives, coaches and players.  I generally use quotation marks when I reference the term, as my personal statement about the irony around its use.  I understand “The Code” but I certainly do not agree with it.  Here’s why:
  • It’s undocumented for a reason.  “The Code” changes from player to player and situation to situation, depending on the tone of a game or the player’s emotional state.  It’s built on perceptions - not firmly grounded rules.  The interpretation varies widely depending upon which team you play for or is a fan of.  Therefore it’s closer to urban legend than something we should hold up as a standard.
  • At the core of “The Code” is the concept of policing of the game.  Anyone who engages in cheap shots or who attacks a star player knows he will have to answer for it.  The problem is there are no defined transgressions listed for players to know what they have to answer for.  Decisions about what defines “a wrong” are made by emotional and biased players.   A hit like Torres on Hossa is obvious and perhaps you have to wait for 10 months, but revenge is inevitable.  Think you’re being shown up in a blow-out, then attack a player.  Don’t like a clean hockey hit on one of your teammates, then drop the gloves and start pounding the opponent.  The list of violations that “The Code” covers is only limited by your imagination.
  • The enforcement aspect of “The Code” is not administered by a well-reasoned and level-headed individual.  The act of “making someone pay” is carried out by someone who is angry and wants to hurt the other party.   For every fight that ends in simple bruised knuckles or perhaps a concussion there is a small chance of a Bertuzzi-Moore incident.  Or a McSorley-Brashear.  Or Nick Kypreos.  The difference is a slim margin of personal control by the emotionally charged player who is throwing punches or chasing the offender around the ice.
  • “The Code” is purely selfish and unregulated.  Therefore it does more to damage the image of the sport of hockey than players realize.  Players don’t care about the rules of the game and don’t recognize that a player’s been punished by the league.  They don’t care about the image of the sport when they set out to collect their pound of flesh.  They will decide when a player has been properly disciplined and it will be done through the application of a fist.  The NHL should be doing everything it can to address the obvious lack of respect the players have for the league’s administration of the rules and discipline.  The Hawks demonstrated that lack of respect by thumbing their noses at Torres’ 21 game suspension and took matters into their own hands.  As long as “The Code” goes unaddressed by the league then the image of hockey will be of fighting, brawling and frontier justice.  That’s something to be proud of?

You can dress up the term all you want but at the end of the day “The Code” is all about satisfying the players need for revenge.  It’s an undocumented set of guidelines that doesn’t merely support the concept of retribution – it attempts to elevate it to something that is honourable.  If someone commits wrong against you or a teammate then it’s perfectly acceptable to attack and beat them until satisfaction is realized.  Even when it goes horribly wrong the players stubbornly believe in it.  But real respect for each doesn’t come from a punch to the head and a professional image isn’t built on the concept of violence. 


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