Book Review:
“The Code” by Ross Bernstein

Good books about hockey are notoriously difficult to find. The sport is not written about very much to begin with, and many of the books that are published are informational compilations centered around stats and trivia. Quality books that take an in-depth look at the game are quite rare.

Here at, we always strive to give you great reading material – primarily about the IceMen, but also about hockey in general. With that goal in mind, I’ll occasionally review a book about the sport after I’ve read it cover-to-cover.

If it’s a good read, I’ll encourage you to give it a look as well. And if it’s not, I’ll shoot straight and hopefully keep you from wasting your time and money on it!

So enough jibber-jabber. Let’s get down to business and commence our first-ever book review!

The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL

Published in 2006, written by Ross Bernstein
[Purchase on]

Hockey fans hear the term all the time – “The Code.” But how many really know what it is and understand it? To some, it’s a completely mysterious concept. To others, it’s a fascinating element of the game. But to hockey players, it’s a way of life.

“The Code” has long been established as an unwritten set of standards and unofficial rules, which all players are expected to abide by and uphold. It is about maintaining honor and respect, curtailing dirty play and allowing the game to police itself.

Minnesota native Ross Bernstein delves into a number of topics in this book – why fights happen and the role of fighting in hockey, how fights start and the “rules of engagement” after the gloves are dropped, retaliation and retribution, intimidation and fear, agitators and divers, playing hurt, the life of an enforcer both on and off the ice, and the age-old debate about whether or not fighting in hockey should be banned altogether.

Bernstein also analyzes the controversial instigator rule, including an interesting bit of background about how “The Great One” himself, Wayne Gretzky, played a role in the rule’s 1992 implementation. And there’s even an intriguing section about fighting friends, former teammates, and even your own family.

The book certainly has its flaws – there are a few glaring factual errors, the structure is awkward and scatterbrained at times, and Bernstein gets rather repetitive despite the fact that his own words only comprise roughly half of the book.

That, however, brings me to the book’s greatest strength. While the author’s writing is only about half of the book, the other half is devoted to lengthy quotes and stories from over 50 current and former NHL players and coaches.

Bernstein interviewed dozens of prominent tough guys, including Tony Twist, Kelly Chase, Marty McSorley, the late Derek Boogaard, and even enforcer-turned-referee Paul Stewart. Their words make up a considerable chunk of the book, and that’s a very good thing.

While Bernstein is merely a sports fan and journalist, those he interviewed have lived “The Code” firsthand. Their experiences and insights are revealing, interesting, and often quite funny.

Other reviews of the book have criticized Bernstein for relying too heavily on stories from his interview subjects. However, I must credit the author for simply providing the book’s skeleton and allowing the players to flesh it out. While Bernstein’s writing is merely average, the words of his interviewees are generally A+ stuff.

Following are a few of the insightful and colorful quotes you’ll find in the book…

Former NHL goaltender and current TV analyst Darren Pang, on The Code:
The code, in my eyes, is a very detailed way of describing how the game polices itself. The code has been around for more than 100 years, yet it is not written anywhere. Nobody takes you aside and tells you the rules. You either understand it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you will sooner or later, guaranteed. It is all about playing the game with respect or paying the price if you don’t. It is about accountability and playing the game the right way.

2012 Stanley Cup champion Willie Mitchell, on explaining The Code to kids and new fans:
If society didn’t have policemen, then there would be chaos. So in hockey, each team has a policeman, and they keep the peace. They enforce the laws, or the code, and the players abide by that. Sure, the officials call the penalties and regulate the game, but the enforcers make sure that guys play honest. They make sure that if a guy cheap-shots somebody, then he will have to be held accountable. That keeps things on an even keel. Fights happen in hockey for a reason, and hopefully the end result of them is that the game can be played in a much better, fairer, safer environment for everybody.

Hockey Hall of Famer and Olympic Gold Medalist Neal Broten, on enforcers:
They were the nicest, most down-to-earth guys, totally opposite of what you would expect. They are the most fun to hang around with and unlike their on-ice persona, they are just sweet people. To them, it was just a job and they were just doing their job out there. Everybody has a role in this sport and if they didn’t do their job, then I couldn’t do mine. It was a team effort and we all knew that. I don’t know how they did it. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes as a fighter. People ask me if fights in hockey are really real. Hell yeah they’re real. Otherwise, I would have been in a lot more of them.

Longtime enforcer Mike Peluso, about life off the ice:
When people find out you were an enforcer, they always want to ask you a million questions. Sometimes it can be fun, but other times it drives you crazy. I am a pretty avid golfer now that I am retired, and I go out a lot as a single, where I’m paired up with three other guys to make a foursome. Sometimes I just don’t want to tell stories about beating people up. I just want to relax and play golf. So I lie and tell them that I am a sexual relationship counselor. Once they hear that, they just shut up and golf. It’s hilarious!

Former tough guy Rob Ray, on fighting hurt:
I’ve fought guys before and could see that they were really hurt, so I stopped. You never want to embarrass or hurt a guy. “Come on, man, you’re hurt. Let’s call it a draw.” You give them that opportunity right then and there, and you hope that if the tables are turned down the road, they do the same for you. I broke my hands, fingers, knuckles, orbital bones, nose, and jaw. We’ve all suffered injuries and been on the shelf, so none of us ever wanted to seriously injure somebody and prevent them from earning a living.

Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull, about the instigator rule:
The problem with the instigator is that there are tons of little guys who are a pain in the ass and deserve to get beat up, but they can hide behind that rule. Guys who have no fear have no respect for the game.

Next time, tell us what you really think, Brett! (Hull has never exactly been known for his subtlety.)

The Bottom Line:

“The Code” isn’t really revealing any major secrets of the sport; it’s simply making some of the unwritten rules, well, written. From a factual standpoint, longtime hockey fans probably won’t find much they don’t already know. (Newer fans might learn a thing or two, but in hindsight you’ll realize that you likely already had a basic understanding of the concept.) But for pure entertainment value, the numerous quotes in the book make it a pretty good read for new and seasoned fans alike. The colorful stories told, some not fit for printing here, are easily worth the proverbial price of admission.

And if that’s not enough to convince you to give the book a look, it’s worth noting that it even contains a reference to a former IceMen player – a very popular player, no less. You can find that on Page 190 of the hardcover edition!

One comment

  1. Dave Huff says:

    The Code is a real good hockey related book. You are right, they are hard to come by. If you have any other suggestions, please let me know. There is just not much (nothing)at the libraries in Evansville. We found The Code on the reduced table at Barnes & Nobles for $7.50 along with Original Slap Shot for $10.00. Which by the way makes many references about Coach Kromms father.

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