Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Code – Creating Honor Amongst Enforcers, or Excuses

“The Code”.  That mythical set of rules that is trotted out at various times to create honor amongst  hockey enforcers and excuse the dishonorable conduct that more often results from enforcers in the game.  Those who support fighting will mention the history and tradition of dropping the gloves and that players have long used “The Code” to police the game.  But just how long has “The Code” existed.

About a month ago a random Tweet caught my interest.  The author had stated that “The Code” had existed as long as the NHL and its tradition is why fighting remains in professional hockey.  As a long-time fan I couldn’t remember any mention of these unwritten rules at any point prior to 1990.  I sent out some direct messages to Twitter followers who are sports journalists  that have been following hockey for several decades.  They all had the same recollection as me that “The Code” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the mid-1990’s.

So I spent several hours on Google, conducting a year by year search, starting in 1980, for various phrases related to “The Code”, fighting, hockey and enforcers.  Here are the results…

Throughout the 1980’s there is no reference to “The Code” that I could find in any player interview, game summary or sports article.  I managed to find “hockey” and “code of conduct” in several links but they were descriptions of rules that would be the opposite of what I was looking for – rules that banned fighting and dirty play in the sport.  During the 80’s, a period that could be defined as the glory years for enforcers, I could find no mention of unwritten rules or “The Code”.

In the next decade the results were the same until 1994 when there was a mention of a “code of justice” by Joe Lapointe of the New York Times in an article on Bob Probert.

March 7, 1994 – New York Times

Neil Smith, president and general manager of the Rangers, has often said that he has mixed feelings about hockey fights because he thinks they are a way for players to enforce a code of justice among themselves.

A couple of years later the New York Times uses the same phrase, “code of conduct”, in a story that described how violence could lead to stardom in the NHL.

January 21, 1996 – New York Times

In hockey's murky but fiercely enforced moral universe, it's O.K. to hold other players, hook them with your stick, high-stick them, spear them, blind-side them, ram your elbow into their jaw, repeatedly punch them in the back of the head, hack at their hands with your stick, kick their skates out from under them so they fall over backward and do all the other things that Samuelsson and other "robust" players routinely do -- but only as long as you're willing to fight anyone who takes exception. This code of conduct, so baffling to people unfamiliar with hockey (as well as to plenty who are), springs from the game's Canadian roots.

The references to anything resembling “The Code” are few and far between, and seem to be only used by writers who are trying to explain to fans and hockey followers why fighting and enforcers are part of the sport.  In 1998 a Sports Illustrated story on Tony Twist talks about the “unwritten code of the NHL tough guy”.

March 16, 1998 – Sports Illustrated

Indeed, Twist abides by the unwritten code of the NHL tough guy: no sucker punching, no taking advantage of an injured foe, no jumping a guy when he's gassed at the end of a shift and no pairing off against a nonheavyweight unless he's a jerk who really has it coming.

But then an ugly incident brings out both harsh criticism for fighting and rallies the defense of the role of the enforcer.  On February 21st 2000,  Marty McSorley swung his stick and hit Donald Brashear in the head.  Brashear fell backwards and hit his head hard on the ice, losing consciousness and suffering a Grade III concussion. In the immediate aftermath the coverage was extensive but there was no mention of “The Code” and how McSorley violated it.  However variations started to creep into the articles as opinion pieces came out a few days later.

February 23, 2000 – Chicago Tribune

But for a spearing incident on Calgary's Mike Bullard in the 1988 playoffs, which drew a three-game suspension, McSorley doesn't carry the reputation of a player who breaches the code of conduct.

February 23, 2000 – Chicago Tribune

"It's an emotional game, but that's unacceptable," Blackhawks associate coach Lorne Molleken said Tuesday. "There is a code of conduct that exists between tough guys. Stuff like that isn't part of the code."  

Again they use the term “code of conduct” that sports journalists have written about for several years, but there are no players making reference to some unwritten set of rules that enforcers are supposed to follow.   An interesting quote from a player on the Brashear – McSorley incident comes from Todd Bertuzzi.

February 23, 2000 – CBC

Bertuzzi scored twice in the game for the Canucks and spoke out against McSorley.  "That was the most cowardly act ever," Bertuzzi said at the time. "It's disgusting, terrible, absolutely disgusting. That does not need to be in the game of hockey. I've never seen anything like that in my life."

Later that year, as McSorley is on trial over his attack on Brashear, this article is published that again talks about the unwritten code.  The phrase is only being used by a journalist and not any players.

November 2000 – Saturday Night Magazine

On screen first is a brawl between McSorley and Brashear a couple of minutes into the opening period. McSorley instigates, but is pummelled by the younger, quicker player. I count eighteen punches landed on McSorley’s head and upper body. Brashear then taunts him by dusting his hands dismissively. Not surprisingly, McSorley is soon seeking a rematch, using slashes and cross-checks as provocation. According to the unwritten code that governs how tough guys interact, this is his right. But Brashear ignores the challenges.

For the next couple of years there are 2 or 3 articles on fighters where the “code of conduct” phrase is used to explain why heavyweights only fight other heavyweights.  Here’s an example from that ever popular fight website.

Oct 11, 2003 –

Shawn: On that note, is there still a heavyweight code that exists today?

Kip: There’s an understanding that a heavyweight is not going to fight a skilled non-fighting player. In addition to that we all understand that we all take great risks in fighting and if the other player during the fights asks to stop the other stops immediately.

In 2004 I found the first description of a set of rules for enforcers when Rob Ray outlines the do's and don'ts of fighting.  It is also the first time that I have seen “The Code” used much like it is today.

January 19, 2004 – ESPN

"No matter what the situation or how much you maybe don't like the guy, if he's down or he's really hurt it's over," Ray said. "You stop throwing punches immediately. It's part of the code; he would do the same for you."

A little over a month later, on March 8, 2004, Todd Bertuzzi grabbed Moore's jersey from behind and punched him in the back of the head, with Moore's face hitting the ice as they both fell down.  Another ugly incident that prompted outrage against the NHL’s culture of violence as well as outspoken players who defended the role of fighting.   And references to “The Code” become more common.

March 12, 2004 – ESPN

But part of the hockey code, so embraced and so much a part of this incident until Bertuzzi's ultimate action stepped far over that undefined line, is accountability and responsibility. Even if Bertuzzi is genuinely remorseful, that doesn't mitigate what he did. It was worse than McSorley's nailing of Brashear.

March 13, 2004 –

Despite what is being said, hockey, like any other sport, has a code. This code was not bent or slightly stepped over by Bertuzzi, it was simply ignored. When a player breaks the written rules and the unwritten rules, little can be done but to penalize him and send a message that these sorts of actions will not be tolerated. The NHL has definitely sent that message with the suspension handed to Bertuzzi.

March 22, 2004 – Sports Illustrated

The NHL has a 166-page book of rules and many more nebulous, unwritten ones, which fall under the general heading of The Code. In the game in which he was attacked, Moore probably assumed he had already honored the Code in the first period when he fought with Vancouver's Matt Cooke.

Bertuzzi's assault, and others like it, will continue to happen as long as fighting and on-ice violence remain central to the game. And the Code will continue to be honored.

During the following season, 2004-2005, the NHL locked out the players and during the downtime Ross Bernstein interviewed a large number of former and then current enforcers.  Published in September of 2006 his book exploded the awareness of the term - The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL.  Did he prompt the players with the phrase, borrowing from previous sports writers, or did the title of his book come from the players themselves?  Only Bernstein can answer that but soon after his book was released “The Code” became ubiquitous.  

It appears to me that “The Code” was a concept used initially by a very small number of hockey journalists in an effort to explain why fighting remained in the sport.  It became slightly more prominent during the inexcusable act of violence by Marty McSorley.  By the time Todd Bertuzzi delivered another unforgiveable violent act the phrase was still little used and almost never quoted by players. After the Bernstein book its use becomes more widespread.  “The Code” became a common refrain that players spouted in interviews in an attempt to separate the honorable role of enforcers from those incidents that “sickened them” and that were “not part of the game”.  It’s never been a code of honor.  It’s always been a crutch that is used to excuse the violence that the NHL and NHLPA have been unwilling or unable to remove from professional hockey.

For a more light-hearted view of “The Code”, check out this classic by Down Goes Brown.

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