“The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL” is a book that I wanted to read for a long time. Recently, I found it at a used book store and snapped it up. Now, I wish I had read this book back in 2006 when it first came out. “The Code” explains the culture of fighting in hockey, including the hidden subtexts that I never knew about.
Written by Ross Bernstein, the author of over 40 sports books, “The Code” starts off with the history of fighting in the NHL. It then spends some time deconstructing the two-biggest incidents of on-ice violence in recent NHL history: the “McSorley Incident,” when Marty McSorley slashed Donald Brasher in the head, injuring him; and the “Bertuzzi Incident,” when Todd Bertuzzi attacked opponent Steve Moore from behind, ending Moore’s career. Bernstein does not defend the actions of either player (and note that McSorley wrote a foreword for this book), but deconstructs the events that led to each incident, hockey’s culture of violence, and how that also contributed.
Bernstein then explains many aspects of fighting that fans may have wondered about — or not even realized — but did not know, such as: why is there fighting?; what prompts the gloves to come off?; what are the rules of engagement in a fight?; how is fear and intimidation used as a tool to help win games?; what effect do visors have?; and more.
A great deal of the book uses quotes from former players, many enforcers, some not. This really peels back the layer of what it is like to be a fighter in the NHL (Spoiler alert: most enforcers would rather be goal scorers.) Bernstein lifts quotes from other sources and gets information directly from the players himself. As this book came out in 2006, he also talks about the 2004-05 NHL lockout, as well as how the new rules to speed up the game and stifle fighting have affected enforcers.
Quote that epitomizes “The Code”: “The most important aspects of the code, bar none, are honesty and respect. Because without those things, it’s the Wild West out there, which is no good for anybody. If players don’t playe honestly and with respect, then there’s a price to pay in this game. That is just the way it is. Hockey is a game that polices itself, and there is a lot of honor behind that. It is something we as players take very, very seriously. As an enforcer, it was my job to make sure that my teammates had space out on the ice and could play the game honestly. If opposing players wanted to take liberties with my guys, then they would have to answer to me. That kept things honest, and that is the basis of the code in its purest sense.” – Marty McSorley, from the book’s foreword.
What I like about “The Code”: Direct quotes from former enforcers, where they give their take on a topic or share a story from their own careers, are the most entertaining aspect of “The Code.” These usually appear as sidebars in the book.
What I do not like about “The Code”: This is going to sound like nitpicking — because I really enjoyed this book — but those sidebars appear every two or three pages. While insightful and worthwhile, they also constantly interrupt the flow of the overall narrative, which also relies heavily on quotes from former players. A lot of the time I was reading a long quote that went to the next page, then doubling back to read a sidebar or two, then continuing on. Also the book only has eight pages of black and white photos — and one full page is used for a photo of Brett Hull, “the prototypical superstar that the code is designed to protect.” Really? There should have been at least one picture of every quoted player; without their insight, this book would never have been possible.
Even though fisticuffs used to play a bigger role in hockey, “The Code” does such a great job of explaining and giving insight on the topic that any fan, casual or hardcore, should read it if they’ve ever had questions about fighting. However, keep in mind that the book is over 10 years old, and has lost some of its relevance due to the diminished role that fighting has in the NHL today. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.