Commentary

After the whistle

Want to know how an NHL postseason pileup works? Follow along with us

Updated: June 4, 2010, 2:45 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

Getty ImagesTomas Kopecky and Daniel Carcillo knuckle up in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

This article appeared in the June 14, 2010 World Cup preview issue of ESPN The Magazine. You can find all content from that issue in the right sidebar or by clicking here.

To better explain the essence of a hockey scrum -- spontaneous, post-whistle dustups in front of the net that increase in frequency, intensity and importance during the NHL playoffs -- Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has graciously agreed to punch me square in the face.

But first, Laviolette targets my brain. They may look chaotic and barbaric, but scrums are a critical and strategic part of the game, and they unfold and escalate according to hockey's venerated, unwritten rules of engagement. To demonstrate this complex chain, Laviolette begins by shoving me in the chest, kinda hard. I respond by shoving him back, a little harder. Which seems to please him. "Ah, but now because you did that I'm gonna punch you in the jaw," says Laviolette, who won a Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. "Then one of your teammates is gonna come get me -- and on it goes from there. This time of year, when everyone gets around the goaltender and bodies start flying, the scrum can be the most heated part of the game."

As well as the most revealing. This deep into the playoffs, with so much at stake and so little room for error, teams simply can't risk a two- minute disadvantage for instigating a fight. Instead, they navigate the legal gray area of the scrum to assert themselves physically, defend their turf, send messages, agitate opponents and, sometimes, change the momentum of a game or even an entire series.

To the untrained eye these scrums may look like 10 unshaven guys pawing and cursing one another in an ice-covered mosh pit. And, yes, scrums do occasionally result in salty language, finger-biting and worse. But there's much more going on than just eye-gouging and jersey- twisting. This isn't Roller Derby. Hockey scrums follow a specific, strategic, choreographed and interconnected blueprint of proliferation.

It's a complicated and illuminating code. And one that the Chicago Blackhawks and Flyers will master if they want to raise the Stanley Cup.

Or they could just follow along here.

The Whistle Blows

Play stops and bodies smash up like cars crashing in front of the net, battling over the most important territory on the ice -- the goal crease. "Turf is a big thing in hockey, and guys take it very seriously," says Ross Bernstein, president of the board of directors of the Herb Brooks Foundation and author of The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. "Scrums are unique to hockey in the way they allow teams to use a form of frontier justice." After defending the crease, the ultimate goal of players in every scrum is to see what you can get away with. That is, how much can you rattle, provoke and intimidate your opponent while flirting with the boundaries of the rule book and the ref's patience?

The Verbal

What players call chirping almost always involves some variation of questioning a rival's manhood; if it's deemed over the line, it can trigger a physical response. In last year's playoffs, for instance, Caps defenders in close quarters with Sidney Crosby asked why he wasn't man enough to skate down the middle of the ice. "The term 'chickens---' gets used a lot, as well as the P-word," says ESPN analyst Matthew Barnaby, an agitator extraordinaire for 15 years in the NHL. "There's nothing off-limits. I talked about moms, wives, girlfriends, dogs, anything to get guys to retaliate."

The Goalie

Goalies are untouchable. Period. It's partly a turf thing but it also has to do with the goalie being unable to protect or defend himself. When scrums immediately escalate into full-blown donnybrooks, it's almost always because someone sprayed the goaltender's face with snow, took an extra whack at a frozen puck or had steamrolled the goalie and run him into the back of the net. "Touching the goaltender is like whacking a made guy in the mob," says Bernstein. "There will be immediate and severe consequences."

Getty ImagesNiklas Hjalmarsson and Scott Hartnell are about to mix things up along the boards.

Protected Players

It's also a big no-no to take a whack at a veteran star, a skill player or a captain. Just ask former Flyer Todd Fedoruk, who, in 2007, got knocked out by Rangers enforcer Colton Orr after he roughed up All-Star Jaromir Jagr.

Mismatches

Players are supposed to pair up in an honorable fashion according to size and fighting skill. Enforcers grab enforcers. Grinders tie up with grinders. Captains and stars latch onto their own kind. When the dance partners aren't equal, players are expected to come to each other's defense. Scrums, then, are the lab where teammates build chemistry by learning, under fire, who has their back and who won't, in hockey parlance, "show up" when needed.

Clean Tactics

If the matchups are equal, then grabbing, holding, neutralizing and impeding someone's movement are acceptable, nonescalating forms of physical contact in a scrum. If retaliation is commensurate to the initial offense, scrums tend to fizzle.

Target Injuries

Players' aches and pains are fair game. This is why teams treat injuries like state secrets -- to keep guys like Barnaby from targeting them in scrums. "The first thing I'm gonna do in a scrum, once the ref isn't looking, is slash that hurt ankle, poke those broken ribs and stick my glove on those stitches in his face," says Barnaby. "I know it hurts like crazy and I know he's probably gonna lose his cool and come after me and try to get me back, which is exactly what I'm hoping for."

The Dirty Tactics

Most are obvious and provoke instant retaliation: sacking (targeting the testicles); slew-footing, or kicking a player's skates out from under him; hair-pulling; eye-gouging; finger-biting. Biting, though, seems open to interpretation. "My stance is: keep your finger out of my mouth if you don't want that to happen," says Philly defender Chris Pronger.

Target Face

Punching someone in the face is the point of no return in a scrum and an indication events have escalated into a penalty situation. Knowing this, players use a variety of tricks and techniques to walk that fine line between intimidation and incarceration, finding ways to make painful contact with an opponent's melon without actually throwing a punch.

Getty ImagesJeff Carter slammed Dave Bolland into the boards in Game 2 of the 2010 Cup finals.

Face Wash

Going after an opponent by stiff-arming the scratchy, smelly palm of the glove over his nose and mouth is the ultimate gesture of disrespect. "There simply is no bigger F-U in hockey," says Bernstein. "There's just something so disrespectful and condescending, and it's so ingrained in players that it just flicks a switch." If that doesn't work, a GAS MASK is a face wash where the free hand is placed on the back of the neck, thereby smothering the victim in a stinky, sweaty vice. A turkey neck is when a player face washes someone from behind with enough force to yank him backward and down to the ice. A helmet tip creates a "Who turned out the lights?" effect by moving the helmet over someone's eyes and face. During a dustup late in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Pronger pulled off an extremely rare and impressive one-handed face-wash-helmet-tipped-turkey-necking on Hab Tomas Plekanec.

Turn The Other Cheek

Most of the immediate tactics in a scrum are meant to manipulate a player's ego to provoke him into drawing a penalty. Often, then, the most effective weapon in a scrum is the ability to keep your cool. "The trick is to not overreact to anything," says Pronger. "The game has become so much more about discipline, even in scrums. If a guy punches you in the head, you just have to take it and look at the ref and go, 'You're not gonna call that?' " Players often employ humor at this stage to keep their cool while sending their opponent over the edge. After a skirmish at the end of a 5-1 blowout in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, the victorious Habs' Michael Cammalleri stuck his tongue out at an enraged Daniel Carcillo of the Flyers. In these situations Ducks enforcer George Parros likes to announce, in a loud voice, that the guy he's tangling with needs to brush his teeth between periods because he has bad breath. "There's nothing worse than a guy who gets you and then starts laughing in your face," says Barnaby. "Guys still tell me, 'It wasn't the stuff you did, it was that smile afterward that made us want to rip your head off.' "

Retaliation

Moving, redirecting, hitting or other aggressive, alpha-type gestures require some form of measured, equal retaliation, but rarely turn into full-blown melees and a conga-line to the penalty box. As long as both parties feel they've adequately defended their turf, most scrums fizzle on their own accord. "It's all about standing your ground," says the Flyers' Danny Briere. "It's about doing enough to show the other team you're not backing down, without drawing a penalty."

Escalation

When the retaliation is greater than the initial offense, the scrum moves into an intense, escalating loop of aggression that usually ends with equal penalties. Here's basically how it goes: If you hit our goaltender or captain, then we will crowbar your kidneys with a stick. You'll push us. We'll push back, only harder and probably in the face. That will require you to turkey neck one of our guys until we've all chirped, yanked and muscled our way into the corner, where there's nowhere else to go.

Punch

This is the aforementioned line of demarcation in a scrum, the sign that action has ratcheted up to the point of no return. Someone's going to the penalty box.

What Did The Ref See?

"All sorts of stuff happens under that pile after everyone's been pushed together," says Parros. "You can get away with quite a lot, actually." As scrums develop, referees hover, trying to identify instigators and watching for unwarranted acts of retaliation or escalation. The linesmen move in, get between combatants and begin offering warnings such as, "Okay, boys, we're done now, it's over," or "The next guy who does something is getting the two." At this point, the refs are defending their own turf and they tend to react when players challenge their authority. Although usually, says Parros, "guys get sick of staring at each other and just skate away."

Turn The Other Cheek, Part II

This is the critical point of a scrum. Someone's headed to the penalty box, but can the offended party subjugate his own machismo enough to not retaliate and draw a matching penalty? If so, his team gets the ultimate tactical reward from a scrum: a man advantage. "When you goad a guy into punching you in the face and he gets the penalty, it never hurts," says Barnaby. "And if you score during the power play, it actually feels good."

The Fight

If action has escalated equally and the refs are unable to diffuse the situation, then two players have a go and serve equal time in the box. Sometimes, no matter the consequence, fisticuffs can't -- or shouldn't -- be avoided. If your skill player or goaltender has been assaulted and no one comes to his defense in a scrum, your team has bigger issues than a penalty kill. "In the end, hockey scrums are a bit like the prison yard," says Bernstein. "Guys are gonna walk all over you and take liberties the rest of the game unless you first prove yourself in the scrums."

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine; his online archives can be found here.