Feb. 12th, 2011

invisionary: "Now the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket!" with picture of demon in a business suit. (Hell in a Handbasket)
"Inside Baseball". For those who aren't familiar, the term refers to insider knowledge that only a person who works in a given field or an enthusiast of would know, let alone use. I'm a baseball fan, but nowhere near as much as I am an ice hockey fan, so I can explain its parallels better. For instance, common goaltending statistics include save percentage and goals against average. The first is a simple percentage of saves made versus total shots against. The latter refers to how many goals go in while he's in net. Believe it or not, that's simple shop talk.

Inside Hockey has a complex set of rules known as The Code. They aren't in any rulebook, although an excellent book on the subject was written a few years ago by Ross Bernstein. If you watch a lot of hockey you'll occasionally see an interview with a player where he will talk about something someone else did and he'll say that wasn't Code or he broke the Code. Those aren't light words. When someone says that they really mean that guy really fucked up out there and is going to have to pay the Price. It's how a crazy game maintains any semblance of order and you'd never know it at work unless you were familiar with these rules. When you are you'll never see the game the same way again.

Some of my readers may disagree with me, but I think hockey is one of the toughest sports to play in the world. People are moving at over 50 km/h with razor blades on their feet, managing a small rubber disc with sticks to shoot into a net past a guy with huge padding (and doesn't mind people whipping shots at over 150 km/h at him!). The pace is frantic and in a few seconds a play can dramatically change if you don't keep your head up. That's not including the hitting! Violent collisions are the rule, not the exception, as Bernstein said. With that much adrenaline and power focused in a rink with glass walls and very hard ice underneath tempers are going to flare.

Referees are not going to see everything that goes on with or behind the play. There's just too much and it moves too fast. The officials are there to regulate how the play goes and may choose to strictly enforce rules or "let the players play". Sure they will send guys to the sin bin for breaking the written rules, but there's no rule about just how hard you can hit a guy in a given situation, or how long he has to see you before you can toss his salad. Cheap shots happen.

Ultimately it will come to a head and there will be a scrap. Fans love fighting; in fact many wouldn't show up to games if fighting were banned. It's however not fake entertainment - those punches are real, blood goes flying, and bones get broken. But despite that there's a familiar air of respect among the pugilists and that's part of the Code too. You don't see obscene hand gestures among them. They will usually talk it over a bit before they throw down (although this is partially due to the official rules about instigating fights).

Once they're done it's not unheard of for players on opposing teams, especially enforcers, to go out with the guys they just beat up for drinks. It's a fraternity within a fraternity. You might not know it to see it on TV or at a game, but these big guys have some of the biggest hearts of all hockey players. Many are well-known in their communities for their charitable and humanitarian contributions and it shows.

Having said all of that might give the Code a bit of a biased view. It's not just a guide of when and how to drop the gloves. It's not beaten into every teenage hockey player from their first adventure away from home into Junior, although that is where most players first learn it if they came up in the Canadian system. It's a primer into what earns respect in an unforgiving place where the sport is rough, coaches are demanding, and players change teams sometimes more frequently than their equipment (and if you've ever smelled hockey pads, you get why this is important).

For example, here's a few cardinal sins and expectations that aren't in the rulebook.

Don't shoot the puck after the whistle blows.
Spraying someone with snow is fighting words.
Let a guy rest after a hard shift - don't go after him when he's tired.
You stand up for your teammates no matter what, and if that means fighting, you do it.
Call out your teammates in the locker room, not in the newsroom.
The microphones won't catch what you say on the ice (usually), but the camera will catch gestures.
When guys fight cheer them on. They both won for showing up because the Code was honored.
Disrespecting a ref is worse than disrespecting an opponent. That earns the disdain of everyone.
Never let an insult to your goalie go unanswered. Fighting is never his job. Yell at him if he does.
Throwing equipment is a cheap pond hockey trick, not something you ever do in a real game.

Worthy of special mention is the degree to which players are expected by the Code to show up and play. Injuries are something you play through if at all possible. It's not unheard of for players to get hurt in ways that would have them out of several games in other sports to get stitched up with (maybe) a little Novocaine and go back out there to start the next period. Hockey lore tells of players scoring Stanley Cup winning goals with broken limbs. Most importantly you NEVER whine or complain about the pain - that is mortal sin by the Code. Everyone hurts and you cope with it. The docs give you the good drugs for a reason.

I said that this isn't about dropping the gloves, but that is inevitably where it ends if someone breaks the rules - or worse. Failure to live by these expectations means someone's going to have to make up for your lack of honor - either you will or someone else will have to. This probably means an old-fashioned ass-beating. The official rules will not force you to fight and will defend your choice not to. That means one of two things is going to happen - either someone else will have to fight on your behalf, or someone's gonna get hurt. The Price is a straight-up toe-to-toe or it's a vicious body or stick check that could leave you out of the game for weeks. It's your choice, but there will be justice in the hockey world. It might not happen right then but hockey players have very long memories and will take down numbers and wait for just that right moment to settle a score. Sometimes justice has to wait for the sake of winning a game or a championship, but rest assured it will always happen.

So why is there a Code? The Code, in the end, is about letting guys do what they do. Some are scorers, some are set-up men. There are guys who stop the puck and command the play. There are those that make and take hits and drop the gloves sometimes too. Everyone has a role and the team works best when they know their roles and shut their holes. A good way to piss off your team's enforcer is to be a goal scorer and fight - that's his job, quite literally and he'd be flipping burgers if he wasn't making milkshakes out of other players.

Certainly it doesn't take a Code or anything like it to keep order among athletes. The official rules and a general understanding of sportsmanship are enough for most sports and most leagues. Only two professional leagues in North America (the NHL and the NLL, pro lacrosse) condone fighting at all. Some of the greatest players in hockey earned their reputation by hardly ever committing a penalty and scoring often. The thing is those players did so on the backs of many people who dished out hits and took penalties so they wouldn't have to, and the Code is about how the two kinds of players honor and respect each other.

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invisionary: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist." (Default)
Invisible Revolutionary

December 2011

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