When you embrace "The Code," you're embracing a way of thinking that says that you solve violence with more violence. You're saying that it makes perfect sense for someone to punch someone else in the face because "that's how you police the game." You're agreeing to the idea that it makes perfect sense to pound on someone because you thought they did something wrong.
So can you really get that upset when someone takes the violence a little too far? And are we really that surprised?
Yes, what Shawn Thornton did was wrong. What happened to Brooks Orpik was awful. For that matter, what James Neal did was wrong and – since many are bringing it up – what Matt Cooke did years ago was wrong. That much is obvious.
In a game where you're expected to be willing to receive a beating after delivering a hit that someone on the other side doesn't like, is it really that unexpected when the game turns into violence?
Everyone acts shocked and disgusted when violence in hockey goes "too far" but, really, what do you expect? Violence in hockey is always great and amazing until it "goes too far" and then we all get upset.
Sure, it wasn't a "fight." But it's hockey violence. Hockey violence is supposed to stop hockey violence, right? Isn't that what we're all taught? You're supposed to stick up for your teammates, right? And you're supposed to "answer the bell" when challenged?
That's the sort of mentality that leads to people "stepping over the line" like Shawn Thornton did to Brooks Orpik. In an interview from just a few days ago, Thornton himself said "I think the thought of getting punched in the face by somebody can be a deterrent to dirty play."
Note that he doesn't say "I think the thought of having to face off against someone in a mutually accepted fight can be a deterrent to dirty play." He said "getting punched in the face." And that's what he did. If the fight had gone the way that most hockey fights do, if Orpik had accepted and the two men had traded blows, many people would have lauded Thornton for "standing up for his teammates." If Orpik hadn't have gotten injured in the attack, but avoided it somehow, many people would have criticized him for "not answering the bell." Actually, that was still said:
Unfortunately [Orpik] plays on the edge without a willingness to drop the gloves, and that can be a magnet for increased physical punishment in the NHL. Still no excuse for Thornton’s actions however.
Not having "a willingness to drop the gloves… can be a magnet for increased physical punishment in the NHL." If "The Code" actually exists, that's part of it.
The writer of that article also says "Thornton chased after Orpik challenging him to a fight later in the period, but the Pittsburgh defenseman refused until the ugly incident."
That's the culture of people who believe in "The Code." You have to "man up." You have to be willing to fight whenever someone isn't pleased with whatever you just did on the ice, whether what you just did is considered "clean" or "dirty." If someone on the other team doesn't like it, you'd better be willing to fight…. or else.
That's what "The Code" is right? From that same Shawn Thornton interview:
I've been a firm believer my whole life that what goes around comes around. If you’re one of those guys that suckers someone when they’re down or you go after somebody that doesn’t deserve it or isn’t the same category as you, that will come back and bite you at some point, too.
Basically, if you do something I don't like, I'm allowed to beat you up. In fact, not only am I allowed, but I'm expected to. And you'd better let me. Remember what Ray Emery said after attacking Braden Holtby:
"He didn't want a fight but I said basically protect yourself," Emery said. "I didn't really have much of a choice."
That's the mentality that "The Code" teaches. You're supposed to fight when someone else wants you to fight. And someone could want you to fight at any time, if that person feels wronged for whatever reason. If you don't fight, you're a wimp. The best course of action is to "protect yourself" and take the beating anyway. That's what's expected of you.
That doesn't sound like that "honor" that we hear about all the time. That doesn't sound like "two men who know the risk of dropping the gloves." It sounds like what it is: Punching someone in the face when someone on their team upsets you. That's what "The Code" really is. It's about ensuring that someone fights when they piss you off.
Of course, now we're going to hear all about how this was an "isolated incident" by someone who normally "lives by the code" and who "took it too far this one time." What we won't hear about is how the culture of violence is hockey is all about "taking it too far." Maybe Thornton broke the mythical "Code" when he punches Orpik, but Orpik also broke it when he didn't fight Thornton when Thornton wanted him to. Confused? Of course, because "The Code" is ridiculous.
What Shawn Thornton did was wrong. But isn't violence curing violence what "The Code" is all about?
Who can really say what "too far" is when the solution to a violent play is apparently another violent play? And, even if we all have a defined rule of what "too far" is, is it really that surprising when the vigilante justice system of the NHL crosses that boundary? Should we really be that shocked? A hockey game erupting in violence doesn't really surprise anyone anymore, does it?
If you teach someone to pound someone else when they do something that offends you, you can't really be surprised when the pounding isn't to your liking, can you?
EDIT: Dejan Kovacevic has a good piece on this here.
And that’s the problem with your NHL, Gary, where eye-for-an-eye is law of the land, embraced by the dinosaur wing of general managers who — incredibly, insanely, barbarically — think that allowing people to beat each other in the heads with fists can act as some sort of peacemaking mechanism.