Defenders of fighting in the NHL often explain that fighting is necessary to police the actions of players on the ice according to "the Code."
Folks, "the Code" is broken. It has been for years. And the defenders of fighting are doing fighting a disservice by tying it to something as inconsistent, hypocritical, and downright unjust as "the Code." "The Code" is going to be the death of fighting in the NHL one day if it isn't reformed, or if we don't start treating fighting as what it has become: fan entertainment divorced from any actual value to wins and losses on the ice.
The Good Old Days
When I was a kid, "the Code" made hockey better. Wayne Gretzky famously had much more room to skate in because Marty McSorley enforced "the Code" for him. "The Code" then meant that the toughest team members would protect the stars, skill players, and rookies who weren't able to defend themselves.
We still think of it that way, but "the Code" made a lot more sense then. There are some huge differences versus today. First of all, the players were given the first shot to defend themselves, by whatever means they had, before the tough guys stepped in. Myriad are the players who tried to slash or cheapshot Gretzky, only to find themselves immediately faked out of their skates while the puck found its way into the back of the net. And that would typically end things. Justice had been served.
Second, retribution wasn't always instant. Not by a longshot. Players would hold grudges long into the season, and a fight or massive hit in one game could be directly tied to an action twenty games prior. It was understood that revenge was a dish best served cold. It often seemed like the longer an accounting was put off, the worse it was when it came.
Third, punishment wasn't voluntary. This is the change that has gotten the most press over the last few years. Thanks to the crazy way the NHL enforces the instigator penalty, no one can fight an unwilling player no mater how heinous his infraction. There seemed to be an understanding back then that "instigation" could occur more than three seconds before a fight. That if someone had done something to merit a response under "the Code," then the ensuing fight was instigated by that foul deed -- not by the pugilist who made the miscreant pay.
And this understanding of "instigation" went both ways. If a star, skilled player, or rookie committed the initial infraction, and then they were the victim of a cheapshot in return, there was often little or no retribution. The cosmic balance had been reset, and the message was clear to the stars, skilled players, and rookies: if you want to play like a goon, then you'd better be ready to respond like a goon on your own, without the help of your tough teammates.
I recognize that this version of "old time hockey" ain't the way things always were. There have always been exceptions, inconsistencies. Guys like Ulf Samuelsson, who never seemed to get what was coming to them. But back then, when you talked about "the Code," you knew what it meant. It meant justice.
The NHL killed "the Code" with that most pernicious of all murder weapons: good intentions.
There's always been an uncomfortable balance between the stripes who enforce the rules and the toughs who enforce pond justice. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who's watched Gary Bettman in action that, once he took over, the balance shifted toward the referees and toward centralized control. In many ways, the NHL has thrived and grown through the more direct leadership of the NHL central offices under Bettman. But a lot of what we don't like about today's balance between "the Code" and the officials comes from NHL policies that date to the 1990s.
For one thing, delayed responses are now strictly prohibited, with potentially massive punishments by the NHL if they happen. This is a point Greg Wyshinski frequently made on the (now sadly cancelled) Puck Daddy Radio podcast. Every time there's one of the really bad on-ice moments -- think Cooke on Savard or Chara on Pacioretty or the Islanders' inexcusable fightfest against the Penguins last year -- there's always a lot of anticipation for the next game. "What's going to happen?" "How will the law be laid down?" Except that the law is never laid down, because the NHL won't allow it. Sometimes there's even a public statement from NHL Central that anything that happens will be punished severely.
Wyshinski is also a wrestling fan, and frequently makes references to those great WWF/WWE rivalries that were created when someone would cross the line in one event, and you just knew they would get what was coming to them the next time. You'd circle it on your calendar and make sure not to miss it because whatever happened, it was going to be great. The NHL used to be like that.
Nowadays, if you're going to enforce "the Code," you need to do it within the same game. And the sooner the better, because immediate retaliation is punished less strongly than anything that might happen later in the game. That's a reversal of how things used to be done, and it's directly responsible for a particularly stupid development: the fight after a clean hit.
When there's a dirty hit and no one responds, the honor and character of all of the victim's on-ice teammates is immediately questioned. When there's a great clean hit, all too often the hitter is forced to fight. These are two sides of the same coin. The extra punishment for delayed retaliation has caused players to have to make an immediate assessment of the dirtiness of any play that causes injury to a teammate. There's no time for consideration, and that means sometimes they get it wrong. But there's no chance to get it right later, so they have to make a snap decision one way or another of whether to step up for their teammate. The days when there was some opportunity for reflection before "the Code" was enforced, are long gone. When it comes to "the Code," justice delayed is justice denied in today's NHL.
And if pond justice has become more inconsistent, it has also become far less certain. Thanks to the instigator rule, any player is now entirely immune to "the Code" if he simply refuses to submit. No one embodies this more than Sean Avery, who made a career out of violating "the Code" and refusing to answer for it. Avery was a constant reminder of the failure of "the Code" to meaningfully alter the behavior of many players. For example, if Avery's playoff antics in front of Martin Brodeur were legal until hours later, when the NHL passed an emergency rule, that's because there was no need for a rule before that. In an earlier age, someone would have laid Avery out or fought him -- that was "the Code."
If players who play dirty and refuse to fight when challenged represent a vacuum in accountability for NHL players, that vacuum is being filled these days by Brendan Shanahan's suspensions.
It is a bit ironic that Shanahan, number 22 in career penalty minutes, is now moving the league even further toward central control of on-ice conduct and further away from "the Code." Shanahan had more than his share of fights, but now there's less reason than ever to fight. If someone does something terrible, they get a big suspension. That's their punishment. No need to rely on "the Code" at all. And I'm not sad to see its importance fade further. This shift has been a long time in the making, and there's no reversing the trend.
No, the real problem is that "the Code" is not entirely gone yet. It lingers in a sad, zombie state. In many ways it's now the exact opposite of what it should represent. Of what it used to mean. Last night's fight between Arron Asham and Jay Beagle is the perfect example of how "the Code" has been twisted and changed until it's more wrong than right.
In the day since, we've heard "good on Asham for coming to the defense of his teammate" and "Beagle should never have agreed to fight." These comments are inconsistent with "the Code," or at least with what "the Code" was back in the days when it meant something. The play on the ice started with Kris Letang whacking Beagle. Letang is a borderline star and the kind of player who is usually protected by "the Code," but he initiated the rough stuff. In another era, when Beagle responded in kind, he and Letang would have been left alone to sort it out themselves. If Letang wanted to get physical, then he'd be permitted to without interference from his teammates, one way or another. There'd certainly have been no call for his teammate to come to his defense. By initiating things, Letang showed he didn't need anyone's help (at least as long as things didn't escalate beyond cross-checking and slashes).
Of course, in another era, if Beagle had done anything worthy of retaliation, his punishment would not have been voluntary. He wouldn't have had the choice to avoid it. His options would have been "stand up and fight" or "get cheapshotted."
It's time to let the dead "Code" go. It's time to accept that in NHL, infractions should be punished exclusively by on-ice and off-ice officials of the league. The NHL isn't unique among major sports leagues anymore. The players don't enforce on-ice conduct, or at least not very well. And if something has been lost in the shift to rule exclusively by rulebook, then it's time for us to accept that it's already gone.