A few years ago, hockey fans got an intriguing addition to their bookshelves — The Code, which promised to demystify the unofficial rules of fighting.
It didn’t, frankly. The book is a worthwhile read, full of entertaining stories from the men who drop the gloves on the ice but are thoughtful, charitable and funny off it. But it fell short of explaining how hockey incidents progress from a clumsy hit to full-scale fisticuffs, and it didn’t follow through and show what happens to a game after a fight.
Sometimes, it’s just for a momentum change. Alex Ovechkin, the best hockey player in the world (sorry, Crosby fans, he’s just a bit better-rounded), gave someone a clean hit over the weekend and immediately dropped the gloves with the clear intent of shaking up his slumping team. That much is understandable.
Sometimes, it’s just to establish that a player can fight, which seems to be the case in this classic clip of Georges Laraque accepting a fight with the calm demeanor of someone agreeing to play chess in the park:
But after reading the book and watching a couple hundred hockey games in my lifetime, I have trouble accepting that “the Code” is the wondrous self-policing tool it’s supposed to be. As in the real world, fights seem to settle very little.
Fight fans have a meticulous site, hockeyfights.com, dedicated to rating each fight and fighter. But they don’t give any context. Neither do reporters and TV commentators. The comments at hockeyfights.com are usually full of the keyboard-warrior mentality you see from people questioning athletes’ toughness online or yelling at MMA refs to “stand ‘em up” when fighters have spent 15 seconds grappling rather than punching each other in the face. They also devote a lot of time claiming one guy “won” a fight in which both guys struggle to grip each other’s shirts or throw clean punches before slipping to the ice.
Hockey enforcers clearly have a sense of fairness and camaraderie that other athletes should envy, and fighting isn’t worth any trumped-up moral outrage. I’ve cheered for fights on occasion myself. But do fights really serve a vital purpose in the NHL?
I could be wrong in thinking “the Code” is overblown. I just need to see more evidence.
Sp here’s my challenge to fight fans: Take a hockey fight and tell me why it happened. Then tell me how the game changed as a result.