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Opinion It’s ‘The Code’ of the NHL, and it has no cure for stupid

Toronto center John Tavares is taken from the ice on a stretcher on May 20 after being injured during Game 1 of the Maple Leafs' first-round playoff series against Montreal. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Ken Dryden, a former goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, was a member of Canada’s Parliament from 2004 to 2011. His books include “Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.”

It was an awful sight. The play during a first-round game of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week seemed routine — Toronto Maple Leafs center and captain John Tavares was checked by Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot. But as Tavares fell, Montreal’s Corey Perry, speeding toward the play, jumped to avoid Tavares but instead struck him hard with a knee to the head.

Everyone instantly knew it was bad. Every player, every coach, everyone watching at home. The Toronto arena, empty of fans, somehow got even quieter. No one could do anything but wait, in fear and hope, as medical personnel attended to Tavares.

The players’ somber reaction to the injury seemed so respectful, so right. How would these teams — historic rivals facing each other in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years — now get back to playing? Then came the answer. The Leafs’ Nick Foligno, by word or gesture, said to Perry, the player who had accidentally injured his teammate: Let’s go. They dropped their gloves and the fight began.

It was so wrong. So tone-deaf to the moment and to both teams’ initial response.

The Code.

There has always been a basic understanding in hockey: You do wrong to me, and I do wrong to you. You “take the number” of the other guy, and eventually get him back. Like the Golden Rule, except instead of a virtuous cycle, a vicious one.

But I don’t remember when the Code became so unassailable, so almost biblical. When it got to be more than taking the other guy’s number and getting him back on your time, in your way. Now, everyone’s watching. Waiting. Judging you. Your character. Even more than that, your team is counting on you — you cannot let your teammates down. Someone from the Leafs had to challenge Perry, and Perry had to agree to fight.

When the Code kicks in, that is when things can get stupid.

And when the Code becomes this absolute, this ingrained among players, somehow it becomes absolute and ingrained in the league itself, and in the NHL Players’ Association — as though no matter what transpires, they have no right to intervene. This is hockey, and in hockey we settle things our way, on the ice, where they should be settled.

But then the Code becomes the final and only answer for everything. If the referee issues a two-minute or five-minute penalty for a cheap shot or a hit to the head, and the other team’s players don’t think that it’s enough, they’ll settle it. They’ll go after the offender and deliver their own judgment. And if the league imposes “supplementary discipline” after the game for a serious transgression but the opposing team deems it insufficient, the Code takes over.

That’s what happened earlier this month in the series of incidents involving the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. In a goalmouth pileup, the Capitals’ Tom Wilson, seeing the Rangers’ Pavel Buchnevich face down on the ice, smashed him down harder with a punch in the back of the head. The league fined Wilson, a repeat over-the-line offender, just $5,000. No suspension.

With the two teams playing again two nights later, the Code demanded a response from the Rangers. Stupid led to stupider. The moment the puck was dropped to start the game, sticks and gloves were tossed and three fights began, as though choreographed — center against center, wingers against wingers. What other game, at the top level of what other sport, might begin in this way?

The Code has nothing to do with being tough. Hockey players are right-through-the-line-up, all-the-time tough. No sport has players who are tougher. Sidney Crosby is tough, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews — they go into the corners and in front of the net, where they know they’re going to get slammed and chopped, shift after shift, game after game. They are tough in all the ways that hockey fans love hockey. But they aren’t stupid-tough. Not often.

The Code has no cure for stupid. An eye for an eye easily escalates to two eyes for an eye. It pushes players to do what the Code expects, whether that’s good for the players, their opponents, or the game itself. In our own lives, we have cops and judges, but in almost everything we do, we police our own behavior because there can’t be cops and judges everywhere. And mostly it works. But when it doesn’t, cops and judges intervene. Where is the league? Where is the Players’ Association?

The Rangers-Capitals mess in their rematch just looked like anarchy. Tavares’s frightening concussion didn’t come from anything malicious. It was an unavoidable, unfortunate accident. In both cases, the Code kicked in. And what followed was ridiculous.

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