Derek Boogaard Wants to Break Your Face
Credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images
Forensically, it makes no sense. If you and an opponent stand toe-to-toe on ice and brawl till your arms get tired, the referee will sit you both out for five minutes at no expense to your teams. But do it 50 paces in any direction, and uniformed cops will descend in ill humor and charge you with assault. Culturally, it's just as curious: Canada, a land of good manners and social justice, turns out to pack a mean streak behind its smile and exports to us a sport so gladiatorial that its promoters used to circle the arena in an ambulance, blaring, "Who's going to the morgue tonight?" to boost walk-up sales. And morally, it's so twisty that Möbius couldn't unwind it: Enforcers espouse the need for brawls to, ahem, discourage violent play.

But and still: Put 12 skaters in a rink too narrow for men of their size and speed, watch as they chase a disk of vulcanized rubber whose name derives from the phrase to strike, and somehow or other it gloriously slides together. "There's been fighting in hockey since Native Americans and Canadian Indians traded blows over a frozen cow pat," says Ross Bernstein, a hockey historian who's written books on the subject, most notably his definitive 'The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL.' "Once someone saw you could intimidate scorers by checking them hard, there was a need for tough guys to take up for them – and a fan base that gobbled it up."

Bernstein, an engaging guy in his 40s who can describe to you, in pointillistic detail, an epic punch-up from the 1950s, lays out the case for enforcers: "If there weren't fights in hockey, the dirty players would get away with murder. There are so many ways to injure a guy and not get caught by the refs, so somebody has to police the stuff that happens away from the puck." For the first 50 years, that police work was done with more than bloody knuckles. "Till the league cleaned things up in the late '50s and early '60s to get a TV deal, guys would go at it using sticks as weapons, slashing and spearing at will. The NHL was lucky that no one died, though Ted Green was brained and nearly killed one night by a vicious whack from Wayne Maki."

Fortunately, for a sport so gorgeously skilled that it must be seen in person to grasp its beauty (hockey on TV is like NASCAR on an iPod Nano), a code evolved to stem the carnage and refine the terms of engagement. Where enforcers once gladly fought all comers, resulting in hideous beatings, now they largely battle each other to retaliate for crimes done to teammates. Weapons like sticks are strictly forbidden, and no fight can start without mutual consent or, in some cases, prior appointment. "People don't know this, but tough guys dicker, say, 'Let's wait until the game gets out of hand,'" says Barry Melrose, who coached Wayne Gretzky to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993 and is now a hockey analyst for ESPN. But with a slew of recent rule shifts – a tack-on penalty for inciting a bout or being third man into a scrap; an automatic suspension for starting a fight in the last five minutes of a game – "it's so watered down now that you have to pry the gloves off guys to fight," says Melrose. Complains David Singer, the founder of Hockeyfights.com, a popular site for brawl enthusiasts: "There are so many unspoken don'ts these days – don't go at it when one guy's tired or recently got stitches; don't pull his sweater over his head and punch him when he can't see. It's almost like, 'What's the point?'"

Indeed, since 1967, when the league doubled in size and created a slew of jobs for gap-toothed goons, the stewards of the game have steadily marginalized fighting. The frequency of bouts is roughly half what it was when Philly's Broad Street Bullies cold-cocked their way to two straight Cups 30-odd years ago. And after the lockout season of 2004-05, when every effort was made to maximize scoring and speed, those big, slow brawlers lost their roster slots to middleweights who could skate a regular shift. The game's great heavies – Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque – couldn't find work when their contracts lapsed, and the mastodons who did remain worked furiously to improve their skating. That leaves Boogaard as the undisputed champ of the throwback fighters – an enforcer so imposing that he had his pick of offers when the Wild let him hit the open market in July.

"I hate that they're disappearing," Melrose laments. "We should celebrate tough guys, start a wing in the Hall of Fame for the Joey Kocurs, Tony Twists, and Bob Proberts. If Probie were still alive, I'd pay any amount of money to watch him stand in there with Boogaard."