I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.

You can’t hit a guy when he’s down. You are obligated to have your teammates’ back. And if you do something dirty, you’ll have to own up to it, because everyone knows that the best way to clean up foul play and disrespect is a good fight.

In hockey, the “code” is an unwritten set of rules about fighting that all players are expected to adhere to. They aren’t in the rule book, and some of them aren’t known by even the most dedicated fans. However, fighting has been accepted as an integral part of the game, and with all games, there must be rules.

Even if you’ve never been to or seen a professional hockey game, you probably know that hockey players fight. It is the only sport where the referees let players drop the gloves, and beat each other up. And while it has absolutely nothing to do with the technical aspects of the game, fighting has become an expected and valued tradition. In fact, some argue that banning fights would decrease viewership and attendance. If nothing else, it keeps things interesting. Yet I would argue that there is a purpose to the insanity.Hockey brawl!

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“The Code” by Ross Bernstein

So why do players fight? The answer, understandably, varies for each case. It has also evolved as the game has changed and developed in a sociohistorical context. For example, now that we know repeated blows to the skull can cause CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative brain disease, players are more cautious and a little less willing to fight. We see fewer and fewer fights every year, but they still happen, because there are always players willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause that they view as noble. They occur because:

1. It keeps the game clean. If an opponent is playing dirty or hurts a smaller guy he has no business hurting, the fighter (also known as an enforcer) will send a message with his fists. The prospect of getting beat up is generally enough to deter guys from slicing each other with their sticks or throwing illegal hits. In this sense, the players police themselves. They create an environment for their game that they see as fair by making up these rules.

2. It’s a strategy. If you can persuade a great opponent into a fight, then they’ll be off the ice for 2 minutes serving their penalty. Players are constantly trying to make the other team take stupid penalties, so that they can have the upper hand. The enforcers use the unspoken rules to their advantage, and create a new “style” of play. They decide when and how they want to utilize these rules. And it usually works, because it’s hard to turn down a fight.

3. It creates camaraderie and amps everybody up. Sometimes you’ll see a fight that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Most likely, the players are trying to impassion their teammates and demonstrate that they are willing to do anything to defeat their opponents. Once both the team and the crowd has gotten more invested into the game, they can focus on a more important aspect: winning. In this case, the purpose of the fight is the fight. It is intrinsically valuable, because it is what draws the viewers in and gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping.

Spectators are captivated by fights, because they don’t occur in the every day. If someone is disrespectful to you, it’s not acceptable to punch them in the face. But in the hockey world, a guy trips you and you’re expected to bring him down.

Even though the fights seem chaotic, but there is an order to them. They have their own purposes, and once they end, the game goes on.

Berstein, Ross. The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. 2006, Triumph.