NHL: The Code is dead, but let’s not pretend it ever existed

The Code is more broken now than ever.

The Code is more broken now than ever.

“The Code”.

It sounds so mysterious and honorable when you say it like that, as if it was dreamt up by some secret society as a way of holding it’s members to the utmost sincerity and integrity.

No, “The Code” is, in this context, the supposed unwritten set of rules for conduct that all hockey players swear to uphold the day they are first drafted into the NHL.

It’s a beautiful concept, really.  The idea that an entire league of elite athletes, tougher than any other, can rely on it’s own players to police themselves as soon as one guy steps out of line and besmirches the good name of ice hockey is a refreshing concept in the world on modern sports.  There’s only one problem: it doesn’t exist.

And further to that point, it never has existed.

If you talk to any fan of “old time hockey”, they’ll probably feed you some line about how there’s no honor in the game today, and that the good ol’ day are behind us.  Legends like Eddie Shore and Toe Blake would never stand for some of the cheap shots in today’s game, right? Wrong.

If anything, hockey has gotten less violent as time has progressed.  Gordie Howe is considered to be one of the two or three greatest hockey players of all time, as well as one of the toughest.  And what was Mr. Hockey’s defining feature? His proclivity to elbow guys in the head every time he battled for a puck in the corner.  If Gordie played in today’s NHL, he’d make Pat Kaleta look like Theodore Cleaver.

And yet people embrace Howe’s career, not only because he scored loads of goals, but because he wasn’t afraid to take liberties with other players when he felt slighted or simply wanted to impose his dominance.  He is held up in the pantheon of hockey history in large part due to the fact that he liked to elbow guys when they weren’t looking.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a look back at some highlights from the days when hockey was still “honorable”.


That was Hockey Hall-of-Famer Chris Chelios in that clip, by the way.  Brawls like that used to be so common that the NHL had to implement about half-dozen different rule changes to stop every game from turning into a full out cage match every puck drop.

How about this one, courtesy of Zac Rinaldo less than a week ago.  It’s supposed to be an unwritten rule that you don’t jump a guy and punch a player once he’s already down, right?  Where was “The Code” in this one? Where is the honor among tough guys?

Honoring “The Code” and “keeping guys in line” is the main reason that pro-fighting advocates hold the views that they do, however if Shawn Thornton showed us anything on Saturday, it was that the cause worth fighting for could not be more dead.  Actions like that by Thornton, as well as many of his peers in recent months only prove that there will always be guys that do dirty things, and no amount of fighting will ever curb that.  Slashes, spears, and other cheap shots are (sadly) as much a part of the game as the forward pass or the red line.

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Before I go any further, let me preface by saying that this is not an anti-fighting piece.  Full disclosure, I like a good hockey fight every now and again.  When they’re spur of the moment and genuine, I think a hockey fight can add greatly to the intensity of a game.  However, if fighting went away tomorrow, I wouldn’t, and I don’t think hockey would be worse off for it.  What I am simply trying to say is that if you like hockey fights, fine.  Just admit that you like the visceral rush you get from seeing two grown men pounding on each other for 45 seconds.

But please, don’t trying to argue for them by saying that they keep players safe from dirty plays and that’s it’s necessary for the game to survive on an internal level, because as Saturday night showcased, it isn’t.  Fighting and dirty hit’s have co-existed with each other for almost a hundred years.  If they haven’t stopped them by now, maybe it’s time to try a different method of punishment.

And by that, I mean the league and the Department of Player Safety must start cracking down with more severe penalties for head shots and other illegal checks.

James Neal has a history of nefarious play, and was just given a five game suspension for intentionally kneeing a downed player in the head.  Yes he was suspended, but five games without pay for a guy that makes over $5 million a year is little more than slap on the wrist.

To quote Reggie Dunlop from Slapshot, “Violence is killing this sport, and it’s dragging it through the mud.”

He was right then, and he will continue to be so until the NHL decides to do something serious about it.

  • Drew Morin

    If Shanahan would be more harsh on punishments would help. The sport is not to violent just dirty players not getting harsh enough punishment. And there shouldn’t be anything about track record. You do something dirty star or not you’re getting punished. And also the punching when a player is down yeah agreed unneeded but how about them guys who are down and still punching while laying on the ice? They should be punished too.