The Fight of Our
TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski speaks with "The Code" author
Ross Bernstein about the value of fighting, why it won't be
banned and how the NHL should be using it to market the game.
(WASHINGTON, DC) -- It began with that chaotic brawl
between Ottawa and Buffalo, one whose gravity hurled
opposing goaltenders into the fray.
Then came an enforcer named Cam Janssen — a guy who
spends more time in the penalty box than he does on line
shifts during some games — and his injurious hit on
And then another enforcer, Chris Simon, thought he was
in a Grapefruit League game and Ryan Hollweg's head was
a practice pitch.
Finally, there was Predators winger Jordin Tootoo's "self
defense" punch to Stephane Robidas' grill and Colton Orr's
knockout blow to Todd Fedoruk's skull and Jon Sim's broken
left orbital bone at the fists of San Jose's Mark Bell.
While only some of those incidents involved traditional hockey
fighting, the suspensions and the injuries in their wake were
grouped under the same umbrella by the mainstream media. It
was time for NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell to speak up in
an interview with Ron MacLean, taking the jellyfish-like
stance that fighting should not be banned but that it was time
for the league to ask the question on whether it should be.
His comments sparked the most passionate, meaningful and
intelligent debate about fighting’s place in the game since
the Todd Bertuzzi suspension. Unfortunately, this debate
started about three weeks prior to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Cue Gary Bettman, who like a Keystone Fireman grabbed his
bucket of confetti and doused Campbell's flames, claiming that
the league isn't "looking to have a debate on whether fighting
is good or bad or should be part of the game."
Like the commish,
I've grown painfully tired of this debate. My fellow defenders
of hockey fisticuffs can keep trotting out the usual
exonerations like "it has its place" or "it's for protection"
or "getting rid of it will lead to even more horrible violent
acts." But ask this writer why he defends on-ice pugilism, and
from this point on here is what you'll get:
makes hockey more exciting for me, and I love it
No politics, no spin, no flimsy justification. Fights
are fun. Fights are electrifying. Fights are
memorable. Fights are therapeutic in a loss and
euphoric in a win. Fights intensify rivalries, or
begin new ones. And yeah, I do miss those days when
you'd tune in for the Leafs and Wings because Probert
and Domi might fight. Perhaps this makes the guy who
roots for the wall in a NASCAR race or the lions in a
gladiator coliseum. Or perhaps I'm just one of the
17,000 other fans who get their asses out of their
seats, screaming and throwing air punches to encourage
one player to beat the living snot out of the other
one when they drop their gloves — for the sole reason
that it entertains me.
I wish we lived in a culture where the NHL could adopt my
admittedly extreme philosophy and sell it to the masses, but I
begrudgingly concede my message has about as much chance for
mainstream acceptance as a Noam Chomsky/Dennis Kucinich 2008
presidential election ticket.
But Ross Bernstein? This guy knows how to explain the fighting
thing in a way that strips away its repulsion and accentuates
its gallantry. His work could break down every stereotype and
negative image the media and sports fans associate with hockey
brawling — if the NHL's willing to accept it.
Bernstein is the author of "The Code: The Unwritten Rules of
Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL," a best-selling and
well-received book that features interviews with current and
former players about professional hockey pugilism.
What makes Bernstein an interesting authority is that he's not
a zealot about fighting.
"I'm not a hockeyfights.com maniac," he told me, and he's not
surfing the Web checking for punch stats, either. He
appreciates a fight for why it happens, and for the identity
of its participants.
"I love when [Jarome] Iginla fights. When a captain drops the
gloves, it means so much more than when an enforcer does," he
Perhaps that's why he considers Gordie Howe to be the greatest
player in NHL history "by far," because "Gretzky needed
If you buy Bernstein's book and enjoy it, you won't be alone:
"The Code" has a fan in Gary Bettman. Bernstein recently had
an audience with the commissioner in the owner's box for the
Minnesota Wild, Bernstein's home-state team.
"They're constantly being asked why they allow fighting," said
Bernstein of NHL brass, adding that Bettman loved the book
because it explained fighting in a very concise and honorable
As for the recent conflict of interests between Campbell and
Bettman, "It was a good cop/bad cop," said Bernstein.
"Campbell had to say something. Whatever limited sponsorship
they have at VERSUS right now probably said, 'Uh, guys, this
really isn't good for business.' "
The threat of losing advertising and sponsorship is, according
to Bernstein, a primary influence that keeps the league from
unequivocally embracing fighting.
"It's the first rule of Fight Club — there is no Fight Club.
It's a very tight rope: They have to allow it but they can't
really acknowledge and promote it," he said. "In my opinion,
it's all going to end when someone dies. Not 'if,' but 'when.'
The biggest problem they've got is head injuries."
Both Bettman and Campbell agreed that there will be studies
done on that problem in the off-season. Bernstein believes the
league will take steps to curtail head injuries — whether it's
stiffer penalties or even implementing Fedoryk's suggestion of
having enforcers wear UFC-style gloves under their hockey
equipment — just like there were steps taken years earlier to
curtail bench-clearing brawls and to stop a third player from
entering a fight.
"Even with the lockout, fighting majors are down by
30-something percent, and I'm OK with that," he said. 'The
fighting that exists now is better. It's not gratuitous."
Of course, the more measures passed that rein fighting in, the
more there's a chilling effect on the tradition itself. For
lack of a less political and ghastly comparison, Bernstein and
I see the trend mimicking that of abortion legislation in
different levels of U.S. government: quiet, incremental
discouragement can be just as effective — and a hell of a lot
less chaotic — than an outright ban.
But at what cost? Part of "The Code" in Bernstein's book deals
with fighting as a deterrent to even greater violence.
"There's a certain amount of liability when you're a man and
you sign up for this game," he said.
Take the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore affair, one of the
catalysts for Bernstein's opus. Moore broke "the code" when he
took out Markus Naslund; just like in the Mafia, in the NHL
"if you want to touch a captain, there's a price to pay," said
But when he forced Moore to settle up, Bertuzzi basically
shattered every tenet of "the code" with his attack.
Bernstein's contention is that the media demonized the action,
but did little to explain its origin.
"There's a genesis, a storyline, a flashpoint, and all NBC
shows is the flashpoint. What Bertuzzi did was reprehensible,
but when you look at the whole thing at least you can
understand what went wrong," said Bernstein.
"If there's no instigator rule, there's no Bertuzzi incident.
That situation is resolved. The game polices itself."
The problem for fighting advocates, and for the league, is
trying to explain a nebulous concept like "the game polices
itself" to the masses or to the mainstream media.
Like sports columnist Dave Krieger of the Rocky Mountain News,
for example, who recently opined: "Players argue that without
fighting as a deterrent, there would be more cheap shots. As
if you could not make exactly the same argument in football or
basketball. Somehow, college hockey and Olympic hockey get
along without it."
There's nothing remarkable about that viewpoint, just like
there would be nothing remarkable should the NHL respond to
it. The league would hum a few more bars of the same old song
— the one that goes, "It's a part of our game... but it's on
the decline... yet it's part of our game... but we don't
condone it... oh, but it's part of our game... and we promise
to call together a blue-ribbon panel to explore this dangerous
trend in full compliance with your concerns."
It would be the league's typical combination of flaccid
objection and required shame, as NHL suits self-flagellate
like they were characters in a Mel Gibson film. But it's also
a completely mixed message: A healthy "wink-wink" to the
paying customer that fighting will never leave the game, and a
constant state of apology, waffling and embarrassment to the
rest of society.
We always seem to be talking about the image of hockey, the
identity of the league, and how the NHL allows outside forces
to define both of them. How can the league develop a distinct
image when it's constantly trying to triangulate its message
like a Clinton running for office? How does it define an
identity when it's in a constant state of identity crisis?
For the last 25 years, the NHL has been on the defense,
explaining to the mainstream in vague terms why there's
fighting in hockey. It's time to add depth to that message:
Who fights? How does it come about? When does it need to
"It's like when pro wrestling came out and said it wasn't a
sport, that it was a form of entertainment," said Bernstein.
"Its popularity soared."
The point isn't to stage fights like Summer Slam or to give in
to the carnival gimmickry of the wrestling aesthetic. It's
about intellectual honestly.
Don't just talk about fighting as a necessity, as a deterrent
or as a tactic. Talk about its honor. Talk about its nobility.
Don't spend another breath defending it until you're prepared
to explain what it means for these players to take a fist to
the side of their head because their linemate took a stick to
the mouth. Or why there's nothing deplorable or Neanderthalic
about earning respect, defending a brother or adhering to a
code that's been written with several decades of spilled
Those are universal themes that are completely ignored by the
NHL, which is content to sell slick skating and shootout
wizardry to a mainstream audience whose majority has never
picked up a stick nor put on a pair of skates. These people
don't understand hockey — but all of them understand a fight.
"Everybody dreams of beating the shit out of their boss,"
But beyond that wondrous fantasy, everybody understands "An
eye for an eye!" or "He sends one of yours to the hospital,
you send one of his to the morgue!" or "Spartans! Enjoy your
breakfast, for tonight we dine in Hell!" or even those silly
"man laws" on the beer ads.
There's an instinctive, primal message about respect and honor
to all of them. The NHL, meanwhile, delivers its messages
through slapdash comedic commercials and sells its talent with
in-game profiles that feature pictures of 'lil Sidney back
when he was just a tiny tot on wobbly skates (you know, six
It's all surface, not substance, and exemplifies the league's
inability to explain why anyone should care about its players.
There's an entire legion of sports fans ready to embrace this
game if the NHL is willing to embrace its primal roots and
explain the code of honor that mandates their existence. These
fans might not know a slap shot from a tequila shot, but they
know what it takes to stand up to a bully, a bad guy or a
bastard. They know valor when they see it, and they're drawn
to everything from movies to books to Olympic events they'd
otherwise never watch just to experience it.
At a recent book signing for "The Code" at a Minnesota Wild
game, Bernstein said he was approached by a former enforcer
who played in the WHA and the NHL. He was crying as he told
the author how he gave Bernstein's book to his entire family
"They look at me totally differently now," he told Bernstein.
"They used to think I was a dumb goon, but now they know the
honor of what I did. It gave me self-worth."
"Self-worth" is an alien concept for a league that's been
battered by mainstream biases, cuckolded by its advertisers
and undermined by its own ineptitude.
Frame the men who choose to fight as warriors, characterized
by an undeniable humanity and nobility. Frame their fights as
acts of heroism and of heritage. Explain what led to the
brawl, why it needed to happen and its affect on the game.
And don't be embarrassed about any of it.
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.
His book, "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports
is now on sale.