As P.J. Axelsson gathered the puck, took a stride along the wall, and lifted his head, the reedy left winger spotted a last-moment scare: all 228 pounds of 6-foot-5-inch Mike Commodore, one of Carolina's burliest defensemen, approaching Daytona-like speed directly at him.
With a final push off his skates, Commodore buried his left shoulder in Axelsson's chest and dropped the vulnerable winger like the NASDAQ.
Mark Stuart, the Bruins' left defenseman, saw the play unfold. So with Axelsson practically requiring a spatula to peel himself off the ice, Stuart had one thing on his mind:
There was just one problem, Stuart recalled of the Dec. 28, 2007, play at Carolina's RBC Center. The puck skittered into the Carolina zone and Commodore, having jumped into the play to unload on Axelsson, was in full retreat to fill his vacated space. So the man whose face Stuart wanted to pound was looking in the wrong direction.
Instead of jumping Commodore from behind and delivering Wild West justice, Stuart wheeled in front of him so they were face to face, and demanded he stand up for his actions. Commodore agreed, they shed their gloves and fought.
"You don't want to just grab a guy from behind," Stuart said. "I made sure I got his attention before I dropped the gloves."
Stuart's action is just another layer of the complex onion that is the NHL fight game. In contrast to other sports, where umpires and referees rush in at the first sign of flare-ups, NHL linesmen stand on the perimeter and let 'em swing, jumping in only when the fighters fall to the ice or when a scrap has clearly ended. Although casual observers view fighting as the league's knuckle-dragging dark side, the scrappers that adhere to The Code give the sport's most brutal facet a touch of jarring and contradictory refinement.
"This goes back generations," said Bruins vice president Cam Neely, someone who didn't mind an occasional throwdown. "That was just the way it was done and the way it should be done. It's one of those things that when you talk about unwritten rules, that's one of them. It's the show of respect for each other."
The civility of fighting traces its DNA to hockey's roots: hardscrabble Canadian farm boys who would try everything to beat - and beat up - their friends and brothers, but do so with a sense of honor. As fighting has evolved amid its detractors' insistence that it remains hockey's Neanderthal corner, The Code has stood true to offer its puffy-knuckled brawlers some structure: Fight for yourself. Fight for your teammates. Fight to spark emotion.
Above all, fight the right people in the right way.
"It was one of those things he was looking to do," said Hnidy, matter-of-factly. "They had a rough third period. He wanted to get a spark for them going into the next game, I guess. I saw him coming. I didn't know he was coming for sure until after the whistle. He came up and grabbed me, so I dropped my gloves. But yeah, I understood. There are certain guys on the ice. You're not going to have your skilled guys fighting and hurting their hands."
Even in his first NHL game, Milan Lucic knew there was etiquette to initiating a fight. In the regular-season opener against Dallas last season, the rookie targeted 6-5, 228-pound Brad Winchester - then 26, in his first season with the Stars, and, like Lucic, looking to make an impression on his coaching staff. Prior to a faceoff, they had words. When the puck dropped, so did their gloves, and Lucic's first NHL fight was in the books.
"We were down, 2-0, [Shawn Thornton] had just had a fight, and I was trying to get things going for us," Lucic recalled. "It was my first game and I only played 6 1/2 minutes, so you want to try and do something that will make your presence felt. [Winchester] was in the same position, too. It's a lot about guys being in the same situation."
Last month, Lucic was chased by Montreal's Georges Laraque, one of the NHL's most fearsome heavyweights. Laraque, instructed by coach Guy Carbonneau to hound Lucic (the Bruins winger fought Mike Komisarek in the previous match and injured the defenseman's shoulder), shadowed the 20-year-old for all four of their first-period shifts together.
Lucic declined to fight per his coach's instructions. Laraque persisted as his boss demanded.
But when it was clear Lucic wouldn't drop his gloves, Laraque didn't press the issue, although he could have sparked a firefight had he run Tim Thomas or barreled over Phil Kessel.
"[Laraque's] an honest guy," Lucic said. "It's not him doing that. He's being told to do something like that. You don't want to play into their hands. He's a respected guy. It gets back to the pride thing. You want to fight for your own pride. But in the end, it was probably the best thing."
"I'm getting in there 100 percent of the time if that happens," Thornton said. "That's a tough penalty but I'm taking it. No one was upset when I came in the room. Everyone was patting me on the back."
In the third period, Sean Avery blasted Lucic from behind, touching off a melee in which Marc Savard initiated a pig pile on Avery. As the Bruins jumped Avery, Dallas defenseman Matt Niskanen came flying into the fray. Hnidy intercepted the visor-wearing Niskanen (36 PIMs as a rookie in 2007-08) and proceeded to pound him with a flurry of eight unanswered rights.
Afterward, Hnidy sounded nearly apologetic for pummeling Niskanen, which would never have taken place under normal circumstances.
"I didn't even know who it was. I had no idea," Hnidy said. "At the time, you're in such a heat. Emotions are running high. It's different after a dirty hit, where there are cheap shots and guys are jumping in."
As Hnidy learned during his beatdown of Niskanen, emotions can pop through the roof when the gloves come off. Neely, whose pummeling years ago of Claude Lemieux has taken on legendary status, said he'd experienced "pure anger" in the instant leading up to a fight. Thornton's awareness has become so keen he puts himself in a different frame of mind just before he sheds the gloves.
"When I know it's going to happen, I'm pretty nervous," Thornton said. "Sometimes you can just look at a guy. Sometimes you ask. Sometimes you go right after him. It depends on the situation. It's different every time. But my head's in such a different space at that point, I don't know that I can actually tell you what I've said."
Thornton is the Bruins leader with six fights. He racked up 354 penalty minutes as a second-year pro in St. John's (AHL), throwing down 36 times. He won a ring with Anaheim in 2006-07, when he fought 12 times.
Delivering and taking punches might look like second nature to Thornton, but he describes himself as laid-back, not the type to pick a fight in a bar. And there is the ultimate paradox in fighting: Tough guys like Thornton would prefer not to do it, but they acknowledge it's why they've made it to the NHL.
"Let's face it. Nobody likes getting punched in the face. That's a true statement," said Thornton. "But it's a job and I'll do it for the rest of my career. However long it is."
And with that, Thornton leaned back in his stall at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, where he sits in front of a whiteboard featuring the lineup of the next opponent. Inevitably, Thornton's eyes fix on the names of the heavyweights, reminders that his next fight is awaiting his acceptance.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.