“The Code”? Hockey doesn’t have it

Despite what some 82-year-old bullhorn might blare at you on Saturday night, hockey has no “code” that governs the game and keeps everyone in line. In fact, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that out of the major professional sports on this continent (and maybe everywhere), hockey is lagging in its amounts of honour or respect in its fabric than any other. 

Take a step back from hockey for a second and look at how the game supposedly “polices itself”, as the old boys say. In reality it’s just a bunch of babies on skates (and in front offices, and studio desks) who can’t figure out who they’re even mad at most of the time.

Hockey has no code. Or, at least it can never decide what it is. Which, you know, seems like a pretty important step in establishing this underlying governance. Seriously, can anyone explain what The Code is supposed to be? Seriously, anyone?

Here, let’s try to hash it out.

If I had to choose a starting point for finding out what The Code is, I guess it’s this understanding that if a player from team A cheapshots/injures a player from team B, then a random enforcer who plays six minutes a night from team A is supposed to fight his counterpart from team B, and that settles the outstanding debt that team A owes to team B for the hit, slash, what have you. So, the enforcers are the police I guess, and they uphold the overall respect level of the game. As Brian Burke put it, they keep the rats at bay, and they don’t meddle with the skilled guys. After all, they’re there to protect them, supposedly. They also don’t take cheapshots at other players, because they settle things with their fists, like real honourable men. Then why did the honourable Matt Martin attack a puny rookie in Troy Stecher when things boiled over between the Leafs and Canucks a few weeks back? That doesn’t seem Code-abiding. 

Someone maybe should have told Marty McSorley (an enforcer) about The Code before he tried to crack open (another enforcer) Donald Brashear’s skull with his stick. Then there’s Cam Janssen (again, enforcer), who didn’t seem too concerned about upsetting Don Cherry when he hit Tomas Kaberle (skill player who never hit anyone ever) about ten minutes late and nearly killed him. And here I thought these heroes of yesteryear policed the game. Why did Ray Emery have to fight that giant enforcer Andrew Peters back in 2007? I thought goaltenders were off-limits. These unwritten rules are so hard to pin down.

And can anyone say for certain if hockey players think hitting is a part of the game? I mean, we always get this barrels of quotes from players and fans with shitty memes about how this is the toughest sport on earth by a long shot, but it seems no one can stomach a clean open ice hit, and they never could. Take the Hall on Larsen fiasco for a minute. Hall hits Larsen almost accidentally, knocks him unconscious, and players from the Canucks pile in with zero regard for their fallen mate, booting him in the head with their skates as they act tough against Hall. So is this what the code is? Hit a guy, get jumped? I thought the fighters were the ones who had to take care of this? It’s all so confusing. 


Imagine that every time there’s a hit in the open field, NFL players decided to start a brawl. Games would go on for days. And I mean, things do boil over in other pro leagues sometimes. Football players do get in each others’ faces, pitchers get charged at when they plunk a guy. But in hockey it happens nearly Every. Single. Time. 

But hey, maybe this is just a sign of the times. Fighting has trended down the past few years, the league wants to tighten up on headshots (sort of), and smaller skilled players are getting more of a look. Basically, millennials have ruined the league and the code with it. We just need to travel back in time to see the code in action.  

Tie Domi, another true enforcer of the unwritten rules. 

And we can go on with examples like this all day. Bobby Clarke famously almost two-handed a guy’s foot off instead of using his fists or delivering a clean hit like a good Canadian boy. Scott Stevens elbowed a vulnerable Eric Lindros essentially into retirement. Todd Bertuzzi jumped Steve Moore from behind and broke his neck. Nice guy Shane Doan tries to end someone’s career almost annually. And those guys all seem like your typical Code police.

Admittedly I’m handpicking a list of instances in history where the unwritten rules have seemed to break down, but anyone who’s watched hockey for a number of years surely realizes by now that, as far as upholding the integrity of the game, it’s just a bunch of actions and reactions by players making it up as they go. If it seems like I’m going around in circles talking nonsense, it’s because this whole debate is just nonsensical. Macho hockey culture is hilariously foolish. I’d challenge anyone to find a number of clear examples of the so-called Code actually working. First, you’d actually have to define it before you even started searching, and I doubt there’s anyone out there who can get past that opening step.

  • Brad M.

    Careful, you’re agreeing with Ron Wilson.

    The Code is… 1) Pick on someone your own size. 2) Protect your teammates at all times. That’s it.

    I agree that the code is gone now, mostly because the game has changed so much. But, once upon a time, there was, indeed, a code. And it worked pretty well I think. Cherry may be crazy, but I think he’s correct that Gretzky was able to do what he did because people feared retribution from Semenko if anyone stepped out of line. The only people allowed to touch him were players like him – relatively small, skilled guys – who rarely played with physicality anyway. So Gretzky rarely got touched and he could focus on putting up production records that will likely never be broken.
    Contrast that with Lemieux, who usually didn’t have anyone intimidating to protect him, and you get a targeted superstar who was constantly getting cheap shots without retribution. I believe Lemieux’s back problems were a direct result of him getting abused on the ice. Opposition players didn’t respect Gretzky more – they just knew they could get away with more when playing Mario.

    Today, the code is gone – I’m not sure why. One example that comes to mind is when John Scott told Kessel that he had to come after him. And Phil had to hack him like a tree to keep him away.
    In the Gretzky era, I don’t recall ever seeing a huge fighter going after a pure skill guy like that.

    The game is just different now. Cherry doesn’t understand that everything evolves… even hockey.

    That incident with Larsen – in the old code world… it wouldn’t have happened. Players would have focused on Larsen’s unconsciousness first and the fact that he was incredibly vulnerable there on the ice.
    Plus Hall is a skill guy who delivered a clean hit and is pretty much the same size as Larsen.
    Nothing wrong with it.
    Sure, someone would definitely have tried to line up Hall later, but with a similarly clean hit.

  • The China Wall

    Premise of this article seems to be that since there are examples where the “code” has been broken, this means there isn’t a “code”.

    Following that same “logic” would lead us to believe that since people break the law, there isn’t any law…


    The comment by Brad M. below is a good, if basic, explanation of the “code” and how the game has changed over the years.

  • The Russian Rocket

    When Gudbranson called for Martin’s head, Martin had to answer the bell. That’s how the code works. It was broken by Martin and then Martin was corrected by Gudbranson.

      • The Russian Rocket

        I meant when Martin dropped the gloves with Stecher he broke the code then answered the bell when Gudbranson called him out. After watching the replay again yesterday it’s pretty clear Stecher doesn’t drop his gloves so Martin did jump a small skilled guy = breaking the code.