By Stu Hackel
February 08, 2013

It didn't take long. Thirty seconds into his first shift against the Blackhawks on Thursday night, Raffi Torres of the Coyotes was challenged to a fight by Jamal Mayers, who came right off the bench to start throwing punches.

Torres, of course, had concussed Chicago's Marian Hossa during the teams' first-round playoff series last spring with a blatantly illegal hit to the head that put the high-scoring winger out for the rest of the postseason. Torres was handed a 25-game suspension, among the longest in league history. (It was later reduced to 21 after an appeal.)

"I think it was pretty much known it was coming," Mayers told reporters after the game. "Obviously, we have a pretty good memory of what happened ... It still doesn't excuse what happened, but give him credit ? he was willing to go."

As fights go, this one wasn't much, but it was clearly retribution, one of those episodes that are unique to hockey, and that those who don't follow or like the NHL can't understand. But for a large segment of the league's fans -- and also for the players and those who administer the league -- hockey's self-policing mechanism is as essential to the professional game as a beautifully executed two-on-one break that ends with a goal.

For critics, the answer is easy: Just ban fighting. In reality, it's not that easy.

The CBC annually polls NHL players on their attitudes about fighting and the consistent, nearly unanimous response is to not ban it.

When your livelihood depends on winning games and when physical liberties are taken with your teammates, when your opponent wants to intimidate you and run you out of the building, or something worse, you defend yourself. By fighting back, you send the message that you'll stand your ground and every affront to your team, every act that crosses the line of propriety on the ice, needs to be answered. Standing together is a huge part of the alchemy that makes a good hockey team greater than the sum of its parts.

Critics also decry the lax enforcement of rules on the ice, saying if the referees called the game more strictly, tempers wouldn't escalate to the point where actions go over the top. But as in the NFL, where it is said that a penalty could be called on every play, NHL referees learn to manage the game by allowing it to flow, and that necessitates at times that borderline calls go unpunished. It's hard to interest fans in watching a parade to the penalty box, and the clubs don't want to trot out their special teams at each whistle. This delicate balance of keeping the peace and flow works far more often than not, and it allows room for the players to act on their own sense of what's right and wrong.

The NHL doesn't encourage retribution, and it has rules against instigating a fight that call for additional penalties. But apart from that, the league rarely discourages payback. It recognizes that players want to settle things among themselves. Torres has an extensive history of fines and suspensions. But for the Blackhawks, his long ban for the Hossa hit wasn't enough. He had to answer to his peers. He knew it was coming, aware that a dust-up with someone from Chicago was inevitable, and he was prepared for it.

"It's something that's in the past, and it's just part of the game," Torres said afterward. "But I understand that if I'm going to go out there and run around and give some hits, then I'm going to have to answer the bell sometimes."

Once that happens, the score is settled -- theoretically at least.

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The Code

The most notorious recent chapter in the NHL's on-going saga of frontier justice didn't end after one fight. In February 2004, Colorado's Steve Moore checked a vulnerable Markus Naslund, Vancouver's captain, in the head and caused a concussion. The next time the teams met in March, Matt Cooke of the Canucks fought Moore, but that wasn't enough. Later in the game, Todd Bertuzzi tried to engage Moore in a fight, but Moore refused. Bertuzzi eventually jumped Moore from behind and pounded him in the head with a right, instantly knocking him out. As Moore fell to the ice, Bertuzzi landed on top of him, fracturing three vertebrae in Moore's neck.

Moore never played again and he reportedly still suffers from memory loss and other post-concussion symptoms. Even after a criminal case and a lengthy suspension, the whys and wherefores of Bertuzzi's attack remain unanswered questions in ongoing civil litigation. That incident did not halt retaliatory acts in the NHL, but one fight to square things is usually considered sufficient.

An entire unwritten "code of honor" has grown around fighting. You can even buy a book about it. There are rules of engagement the participants follow: an invitation to go often precedes fisticuffs; you fight within your weight class; you only take on players who have the same role on their team as you do on yours (tough guys fight tough guys, scorers fight scorers, goalies fight goalies); you fight fair and always remember that captains are untouchable. Fighters are only supposed to fight fighters, unless a non-fighter needs to be taught a lesson.

The Code can be a bit complicated -- and even byzantine in spots -- as we learned this week when Philadelphia hosted Tampa Bay. Early in the game, the Flyers' Zach Rinaldo took on the Lightning's B.J. Crombeen and, while Rinaldo gave away 40 pounds to Crombeen, he outpunched him. But as Crombeen was crumbling to the ice, Rinaldo kept hitting him.

Debate raged throughout the sport. Some condemned Rinaldo, saying he seriously broke The Code by hitting a man when he was down and there's no honor in that. Some excused him, saying that those who fight for a living can't allow an opponent an opening to get back in the brawl, adding that enforcers can work themselves up into such a frenzy that they don't even know when they should stop punching, and until you've been in that situation, you have no right to pass judgment.

You can hear all those various opinions from members of the NHL on TSN panel in their Wednesday discussion of the bout.

It subsequently came to light that Rinaldo might have been avenging Crombeen's going after Flyers captain Claude Giroux in a game last month, something Rinaldo denied. And then later in Tuesday's game, after the Rinaldo-Crombeen fight, Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier fought with the Flyers' Max Talbot and kept hitting Talbot when he was prone on the ice.

"I'm not sure what The Code is on any given day, " TSN's Bob McKenzie said on another intermission segment Wednesday. "It seems to be rewritten a lot. Later in the same game, Vinny Lecavalier came back obviously as retribution and fought Max Talbot. Is this The Code? He ends up, when Talbot goes down, he gives a shot. Well, yeah, that's The Code because apparently a lot of players are saying that was payback for what Rinaldo did, so you have to keep a running tally of what The Code is and The Code is in the eye of the beholder."

"So," fellow panelist Aaron Ward added, "we've deciphered here that once you've violated The Code, there is no Code."

Mixed emotions

The reasons why players fight can be numerous, but the fisticuffs that seem to provoke the fewest objections are those that break out spontaneously from the game's intensity. Guys may be battling fiercely for a loose puck, one player's elbow accidentally comes up a little high and catches another player in the jaw, that player in turn shoves the first guy and they go at it.

Outsiders may condemn this, but I don't recall hearing anyone object to pretty much the same thing during the recent Super Bowl when, it seemed, members of the Ravens and 49ers began pushing and shoving at the conclusion of play after play. Emotions this extreme can be triggered in any sporting event -- and have been. One batter getting plunked by a pitch, or one hard slide, can empty the benches in a Major League baseball game.

The difference is that fights are a regular occurrence in pro hockey, not an oddity. That might mean hockey brings out those emotions more consistently than any other sport. It also means that over the last 40 years, this particular expression of passion has become celebrated, pulled out of its context and romanticized to the point that fighting becomes, for some, the defining characteristic of the sport, and that does the game no good.

But for every expression of how wonderfully fun hockey fights are -- and the latest, apparently, is the head-banger musician/horror film-maker Rob Zombie's forthcoming movie about the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s, the infamous Broad Street Bullies -- there are dozens of real horror stories, like that of Derek Boogaard and other enforcers whose stories have not been as well chronicled. Their high anxiety, their abuse of painkillers and sleep aids, their elevated risk of concussion and permanent brain damage accompany all of this, the often silent sidekicks of these fighting cowboys.

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So the punch-ups will continue because a large enough percentage of the key stakeholders -- the fans, the players and the league's administrators and owners -- believe the game and the business are better off with it than without it. Until the NHL finds a better way to police the game or until the health risks to the players start to impact the league's financial bottom line, every other way of thinking, however powerful it may be, comes in second. Still, the NHL must live with this wrenching division of opinion every day.

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