Ross Bernstein has written more than 30 sports books, but he's reaching new heights with The Code, his treatise on the ancient art of hockey fighting. Although recently he's been fielding calls from the likes of USA Today, he generously found time to answer our questions:
City Pages:Did writing the book change the way you watch hockey?
Ross Bernstein: Completely. I thought I knew a lot about hockey. It turns out I knew nothing. Now I see which guys are on the ice and why. I know there's a storyline by the time you see the fight. I can follow along and it's so enlightening to understand why certain players do what they do.
CP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about enforcers?
Bernstein: The fact that these guys are so sweet and so gentle, and 95 percent of their fights are for someone else, or for some filthy thing that someone else did that they have to resolve and they're getting stitches and broken bones. It's just that's what the code's all about. About being selfless. It's not just fighting. The code is about blocking a shot, about getting stitches between a shift, not a period. When was the last time you saw a basketball player get stitches between whistles?
CP: What has been the reaction to the book among players?
Bernstein: A guy came up to me who used to be an enforcer with the old St. Paul Saints in the WHA and he was crying, he just said, "God, I can't thank you enough for writing this book, it meant the world to me." And basically he said that it changed his family's outlook on what he did. Everyone thought he was just a goon, and he said it really explained what he did in such an honorable way, and explained that without him, guys wouldn't be scoring goals. So he really appreciated it. That to me was very cool. Now I hear from all the players that they're fighting over the book on the team plane.
CP: Do you think the NHL will ever ban fighting?
Bernstein: At one point and one point only: when someone's dead. The players now are so big and so strong and so technical. Everyone has gotten bigger, faster, stronger. You look at all the head injuries, and the blunt trauma, post-concussion syndrome is the biggest dirty secret in the NHL.
CP: What did you think of NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell saying that the league needs to take another look at fighting?
Bernstein: I think Colin Campbell had to say something, but nothing will happen, they have to cater to the fans, they want that to be part of it. They look at that, as I say, very honorably. Two men standing up for what they believe is right, and fighting like men and then serving their time in the box. That's what it's all about. I had an hour with Commissioner [Gary] Bettman, and he enjoyed the book. He said this explains it in a very honorable way. Not for kids, but at the professional level, we condone this because it's honorable to stand up for your teammates, to protect them, to right what was wrong, to make sure that players play the game honest, and are professional, so that's why that exists.
CP: Do you think the NHL would lose a lot of fans if it banned fighting?
Bernstein: Hockey, unlike any other sport, draws almost 70 percent of their income from their fans, not from local TV and radio, but from the fans, from tickets, from beer, from jerseys.... So they have to take care of the fans. The fans want it. The NHL got in trouble because they weren't making any money in television, so the owners got greedy and they expanded, and they kept expanding to all these nontraditional hockey markets. Dallas, Phoenix, Carolina, Tampa Bay, on and on and on. Well, you're selling the game to people who don't play it. And it's very difficult to understand, but they all understand fighting. It's the voyeur in all of us. Wouldn't we all love to beat the shit out of our boss one day? We love these enforcers, we live vicariously through them. When 20,000 people stand up in unison when these guys drop their gloves it's just like time stands still, these two modern-day gladiators bare-knuckle brawling, and it's the train wreck at the side of the road, everyone has to stop and look.
CP: What was it like reporting the book?
Bernstein: I'm lucky, I've got a lot of "street cred" in the hockey world. Even during the lockout, I practiced with a lot of the Wild players because I'm friends with a lot of the guys. So I'm kind of like one degree of separation as far as getting a hold of them. I've written a lot of other hockey books, the guys knew I wasn't going to write some kind of filthy Kitty Kelley tell-all and they were really able to open up and open the vault a little bit, and give me the good stuff. As you know, sticking a recorder in someone's face, a lot of times you get the canned Bull Durham answers, and for me actually I like doing [interviews] over the phone because I think that's when you get a lot more personal stories. Get a guy on the cell phone on the way to the airport, perfect.
CP: How has the role of the enforcer changed since the lockout?
Bernstein: It changed immensely, but getting rid of the red line was the biggest thing. Because it made it to where most enforcers are defensemen—they're not typically the fast skaters because they're bigger. They have to be able to cover a lot more real estate now. The goon is gone, he's dead, he's the way of the dodo bird. Today's enforcer has got to be able to take a regular shift. He's gotta contribute, he can't be a liability. He's gotta kill a penalty, he's got to do something. The salary cap is another big reason. You can't afford to have a lot of these guys now doing one-dimensional things. So that's a luxury teams can't afford anymore.