The trouble with that code is that it's rooted in history and tradition instead of reason and logic, and abiding by that code can often lead you to become a bit of a hypocrite. To break the code and to go against popular hockey culture is to stand up for what's right, even if it may lead to criticism or resentment.
It's a courageous move, and that's why you just have to respect what Bruins coach Claude Julien said on Tuesday.
"You know what, when it happened I addressed it right after the period," Julien told reporters, discussing Brad Marchand's slew-foot on Matt Niskanen that drew a $2,500 fine for the young Bruins winger. "There's certain things that we can all deal with, with certain players and what they do, but slew-footing is certainly not something that I like to see whether it's for or against us. If he's going to be doing that, then he's going to be fined and he's deserving of it."
It doesn't matter if it's for us or against us — it's wrong. He deserves the fine.
In the old days, a coach saying that about a player might bring about 10 tons of controversy. How could a coach say that about his own player? That violates the code. Niskanen wasn't even hurt on the play, and Marchand agreed to drop the mitts a few seconds later to help atone for his misdeed. Did the coach really need to come out and say that?
No, he didn't, and that's exactly what makes it so impressive.
And the best part about Julien sending the right message? Without making any excuses for him, Marchand learned his lesson.
"That's definitely something I've heard a lot from him and that's one thing he wants me to do is play inside of his rules and stay inside the laws of the game," Marchand said after scoring two goals in a 3-0 Bruins win on Tuesday. "It's a fine line, but it's something I'm learning to do and he's kind of curving my game to make sure I do that."
It's not new for the Bruins, either. Last year, after Daniel Paille hit Raymond Sawada with a blind-side hit to the head, Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference didn't rush to his teammate's defense.
"I mean, it's a bad hit, right?" Ference said after that game. "That's what they're trying to get rid of. You can't be a hypocrite and complain about it when it happens to you and say it's fine when your teammate does it."
After the outrage the Bruins felt after Matt Cooke fatefully hit Marc Savard, for Ference to endorse the hit of his teammate would have been inconsistent and flat-out wrong. That didn't prevent Ference from getting roasted by critics, the loudest of which was Don Cherry.
"You do not, I don't care if your teammate is an ax murderer, what you got to say to the guy is you [go to him] in the dressing room and tell him that it was a dirty hit, but you wouldn't do that anyhow," Cherry said on Hockey Night In Canada.
Cherry then went so far as to say such a comment would kill the camaraderie among Bruins players.
"I'd hate to be in that dressing room right now," Cherry said. "You see what happened [Saturday], 2-0 [Bruins loss to San Jose]. That brings your dressing room down, when you have a guy in the dressing room talking about your own players and know he's going to get suspended."
Now, the Bruins obviously aren't the only team in the world that's gone against the code. Sidney Crosby did not look at all interested in letting Cooke explain himself after the hit, and then-teammate Bill Guerin said that Cooke should have been suspended for the hit.
"If a guy gets hurt like that with a shot to the head, there's got to be something," Guerin said at the time. "We're all under the same umbrella, whether the guy's on my team and I'm sitting right next to him or he's playing in California. It doesn't matter. … I understand [Cooke] is on my team but, hey, he's in a tough spot."
Just because it's happened before, though, doesn't mean it doesn't still exist. Think back to the Stanley Cup Final, when Canucks teammates expressed disappointment and frustration that Aaron Rome was suspended for the series after knocking out Nathan Horton on a hit that was seen as dirty from everywhere outside of British Columbia (and maybe parts of Quebec).
"I think as a group we don't agree with [the suspension]," Manny Malhotra said at the time. "I know Aaron is an honest player and wouldn't have had intentions to hurt [Horton]. He's a hard-nosed player. I know he feels bad. It's devastating to be so close to your dream and then have it taken away."
Yes, that was Malhotra, returning from a serious facial injury himself, trying to shift the sympathy from Horton (who, believe it or not, unwillingly had his dream taken away) and put it on Rome. There's a saying that attitude can reflect leadership, and that certainly may have been the case there.
"In my opinion, it's not the right call," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said at the time, missing an opportunity to stand up for what was right and instead following the code, supporting his own player. Coincidence or otherwise, the Canucks lost four of the six games after the hit, were outscored 21-4 in the process and lost their chance at raising Lord Stanley's Cup.
And you don't have to go back too far to find examples of the code still ruling sports. On Tuesday, Steelers players publicly expressed their disbelief that James Harrison was suspended for one game after his fifth illegal and dangerous hit on a quarterback in the past three seasons.
"Some fights you can't win. The hardest part is knowing what those fights are," Steelers safety Ryan Clark, author of a few illegal hits himself, tweeted on Tuesday.
"They don't wanna see us succeed," echoed Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
And Harrison's response: "Lol!!!"
It's just one example, but there are many on a daily and weekly basis that are just the same. And if players, coaches and analysts continue to be afraid to break the code, or if they lack the creativity or ability to use complex thought, then nothing's ever going to get better. It takes comments like those of Guerin or Julien or Ference to really foster a new school of thought within professional locker rooms: Right is right, wrong is wrong, and nothing else matters.
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