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I Don't Know What The Code Is Anymore

I used to understand the role of goons, even if I didn't agree with it.

Jamie Sabau

Most of us know the history by now. Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest player to ever play the game, was simply not "rugged", "gritty", or whatever other euphemism for "a boxer on skates" you want to use. He just didn't have to fight, because he was just that good. Gradually, it dawned on other hockey folks that it made more sense to have scorers on the ice than in the penalty box, and so, to protect their multi-million dollar investments, it made a certain amount of sense for general managers to employ players whom you might dub 'vigilante insurance' to make sure skilled guys never had to sit out due to penalties or injury. And it's true that no one really challenged Gretzky to a fight without retribution being taken by Marty McSorley or some other goon. Ironically, for a while, Mark Messier was one of those goons, but hey, that was just 'Mess'.

At the time, all of these protectionary measures made a certain amount of sense. After all, most people who saw Gretzky play could remember that Pat Quinn, the giant Leafs defenceman (of course he was a Leaf), took some crazy liberties with Bobby Orr. Sure, Orr had fought back on occasion over the years, but the wear and tear of many players doing this to the pride of Parry Sound eventually brought down the man who revolutionized the role of defencemen all over the world. So in a time when any ol' yahoo would take runs at your best player, having a ham-fisted giant around for the purposes of clobbering was at least somewhat more understandable.

By the 21st century, the role of the goon had shifted dramatically. These goons weren't like the Tie Domis or the Bob Proberts of yesteryear. These newer goons were bigger, tougher, and correspondingly worse at hockey. Heck, Domi put up 15 goals and 29 points (a career high) in 2002-03; how many more points is David Clarkson going to score? Yes, Domi was a goon, but he could play the game, too.

By this time, however, the super-goon had entered the league. These simians (the very intelligent George Parros aside) didn't play hockey well but also (as our own SkinnyFish pointed out) didn't fight anyone other than other goons. It was like a chess game where everyone agreed that pawns were only allowed to remove other pawns from the game. Except that pawns are sometimes useful. OK, bad analogy, but you see where this is going.

So as of relatively recently, it was tacitly understood that goons wouldn't help their own teams, but also wouldn't hurt the other team by grinding a dramatically superior player into a pulp. Fans love blood, owners like money, and so it was agreed at some NHL board meeting that fighting should stay, regardless of its impact on playing hockey.

Personally, I struggled with this a lot because I felt like it was such an easy competitive advantage to gain. Just dress a competent 4th line and skip the fighting! No one can make you fight, but you can make other people lose hockey games. Whatever I felt about the role of fighting of hockey, at least the goons were only around for a few minutes, and offered me a break to go get some snacks between watching guys like Phil Kessel or Alex Ovechkin rip wristers from their off-wings. I guess I could come to terms with morons having a 6-minute-a-night sideshow so long as I still got a good product at the end of the day.

This John Scott incident, however, is strange all levels. The "code" seems to have evaporated! A useless goon (totally unable to contribute anything positive to the actual game) going after a supremely talented athlete seems to throw us back to the old days, but those OLD goons could PLAY.

So now Kessel is going to get suspended for doing the smart thing and not getting his face smashed in by some mountain troll. OK, he did take one too many swings with the stick, but still. Scott isn't going to get the least bit of reprimand of any of this. In fact, he'll be lauded as the guy who got rid of both Clarkson (automatic 10 regular season games) and Kessel (maybe only for a few preseason games) in one fell swoop. And he did it by NOT PLAYING HOCKEY. "The Code" is dead.

For the record, I actually enjoy the odd fight in hockey if it's between two talented players who've been battling for multiple games and/or have some history. I can tolerate (even if I hate) the existence of useless goons who fight useless goons. But I CAN'T tolerate unprovoked attempts at injuring star players. Why don't we all just sign PTOs and throw batteries at the Buffalo bench the next time they're in town? You know, forget that, we outnumber Sabres fans 4-1 in their own building anyway. Let's all go to Buffalo on PTOs and huck batteries.

No, not really.