Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

What is the Hockey "Code"

Anytime there is a big hit or a fight in the NHL you immediately hear about the “code”. The code is an un-written set of rules and regulations that hockey players, especially fighters and 3rd liners must skate by. The only problem with NHL players living by said code is that no one really knows what the code entails anymore- not even the players. The hockey code in which we see in today’s NHL has drastically changed from the code they lived by in say the 1970′s.

Back in the day, when line brawls were more common, there was a strict code that almost everybody stuck to. If a 4th line player like

Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

John Scott even thought of touching Wayne Gretzky he’d get killed. In old-time hockey it was a well-known and mutual agreement that you wouldn’t target or hurt a star player, but in today’s game there’s more of an open season on star players.

While the code is always changing, the basis of the code has stayed the same. So what is the epitome of the hockey code? The hockey code is basically put in place to govern the game and it revolves around borderline players and they are to treat star players like Sidney Crosby. But there are three problems with the modern-day hockey code. For starters it’s an un-written code. No one can really say what is or what isn’t when it comes to the code because there are no set in stone guidelines, it’s open for any player to put their own spin on it. Secondly, the code is always changing;

“The code is changing. The rules are different. I know coaches recently say, ‘go after their skill.’” ~ Jay Rosehill defending Clarkson. From Comcast Sports

The third reason with the modern-day hockey code is that in today’s game you have players who don’t really care about the code and have a complete lack of respect for their opposition.

The code was based on respect, that’s why it’s un-written. A player is supposed to know the code, respect the code and thus respect their fellow hockey player. But in today’s game there is very little respect between players- just look at all the cheap shots, players don’t respect each other.

Sure it may be up to the 3rd and 4th line grinders to enforce the code, but the coaches play a pivotal role in how that code is read. Go back to Rosehill’s quote, he said something very interesting: “I know coaches recently say “go after their skill.” What is the mantra around the NHL today? Take out the other teams skilled players to give your team a leg up. That kind of mantra wasn’t as prevalent in the game 20-30 years ago. In today’s game players and coaches don’t respect their opposition’s talent, their goal is to take out that opposition no matter how talented he is. Being a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Phil Kessel in today’s NHL get’s a target painted on your back by other teams.

What is this un-written and holy hockey code? The premise is and always has been this: Fighters are supposed to go after players in their “own weight class” and who can handle their own in a fight. Fighters are supposed to be fighting other fighters, not guys like

Kessel. Of course the code goes deeper such as when a star players gets hit awkwardly or is run by an opposing player a teammate is supposed to drop the mitts to stand up for their teammate. Virtually the situation which Buffalo failed to follow after the Ryan Miller and Milan Lucic run in.

In today’s game, you can interview 20 different 3rd, 4th line fighters and every one of them would have their own version of the “code” and 20 years ago that wasn’t the case. The original code states that fighters or goons don’t fight anyone other than goons or fighters, as fair is fair and therefore they wouldn’t hurt their own team or their opposition and fans would be happy because they witnessed a fight. The code in today’s game has gone right out the window and players are making their own rules on when to fight and who to fight.

Did the Sabres have reason to be upset after seeing Marcus Foligno get hurt and then Corey Tropp knocked out, yes. Was it right for Scott to go after Kessel, probably not. Was it smart for Carlyle to put Kessel out on the ice when the situation was hot and Scott was ALREADY on the ice, definitely not. The un-written code on Sunday night was broken by both teams and when you sit back and think about it, both coaches had a large role in that code being broken.

Today the respect amongst players and the code to govern players by has gone right out the window and the NHL is turning into a free-for-all. Remember when fighters used to have a legitimate reason to drop the mitts after a dirty hit or to change momentum? Now they just drop the mitts to earn a paycheck or keep their spot on the roster. The unwritten hockey code is beginning to die a hard death and the new age code isn’t pretty. In a league with little respect and no governing code anything can happen and there’s no guarantee star players will remain safe.


Tags: Buffalo Sabres Code Hockey Code NHL Toronto Maple Leafs

  • erico

    there is no code anymore. the game has gotten bigger. everyone on the ice is bigger therefore whether you score 80 points a season or 5 you should still be able to drop the gloves and defend yourself.

  • Paul Busch

    Sorry Caitlin but let me give you some perspective of history, from someone who has been playing and watching the sport since the early 60′s. There was never any mention of “the code” in the 70′s and 80′s. Respect for other players started to erode quickly once fighting increased dramatically during the early 70′s. Star players were targeted regularly. Yes you had to answer for any hit or cheap shot on a top scorer but it happened all the time. One of the primary reasons for the instigator rule was to protect the stars from 4th liners who were attempting to get them to drop the gloves and thereby removing them from the game for 5 minutes.

    I’m not a historian of the game but I don’t ever recall hearing about “the code” before the mid-90′s. And I only remember it being used when enforcers were trying to defend why one of their brethren had crossed the line and did something stupid, such as McSorley clubbing Brashear because he wouldn’t drop the gloves. It was like they were trying to inject some kind of honour into their role on the team, like, “that’s not following the code” or “we have a code that we follow and that wasn’t it”. The mythology grew from that.

    Study the 70′s and 80′s, when enforcers were at their peak, and you’ll see that those were the most violent and penalty filled decades in the NHL. And I’m not just talking about fighting majors – other penalties like slashing, elbowing, boarding and spearing were also at all-time highs. There was no respect and there was no “policing”. There was a helluva lot of revenge and intimidation.

  • Dano


    “If a 4th line player likeJohn Scott even thought of touchingWayne Gretzky he’d get killed. In old-time hockey it was a well-known and mutual agreement that you wouldn’t target or hurt a star player, but in today’s game there’s more of an open season on star players.”

    Not true. If ANYONE, even another ‘ star ‘ touched the great one, heads would roll. The same with Bobby Orr, ” You dont touch Bobby Orr! ” ;) . Steve Yzerman had Bob Probert watching his back for many years. Theres a whole list of ‘ Stars ‘ and their counterparts.

    Paul Busch mentioned some wise insight. There was ‘ respect ‘.

    When you went after a star player, even if you were one yourself, you were disrespecting a fundamental understanding that ‘ were gentlemen playing a game ‘. Be it a physical one, that could get out of hand. Heaven forbid you bumped a Goalie!

    But there were unspoken rules. Even ‘ Star Players ‘ were held accountable ( unlike today ).

    Star Players didnt have the inflated Egos like they do today. Try and find a press release with anyone from the French Connection gloating about anything. They celebrated on the ice or in a local gin mill. They were more then likely timid or seemed respectful towards other players AND their fans.

    In the old days, if you did something disgraceful, you were ‘ sent down ‘ or traded. You didnt have to worry about the league, the Coach and your teammates though.. you might get an earful or something more.

    • Caitlin Campbell

      Good point- no one touched the top players perioud. I miss the old school days with an un-written code where players didn’t have massive ego’s and like you said you were either sent down or traded for doing something disgraceful.