The code isn't found anywhere in the NHL playbook. No one dares put it to paper. It isn't even spoken of, at least not openly. That's why it's called a code, existing only in the minds of those who honor it, notably the New York Rangers' Mike Rupp.
By any definition, he is the prime minister of muscle. At 6-foot-5, nearly 250 pounds, Rupp is an opposing skater's nightmare – as massive as a laboratory monster, more than a match for even the toughest of the league's alpha males. Fighting is part of the job, and so is the expectation of "controlled chaos" that Rupp says is designed to "wake up" the Rangers when necessary.
It might sound like a brutal ethos, but there's more to Rupp's world than breaking bones. To know that, you have to understand the code he lives by – the one that says fighting, although a necessity in a fast-moving contact sport, is not the same as savagery.
"The first thing you have to remember is that I'm playing within the rules – if there was no fighting allowed in the NHL, I wouldn't be doing it," Rupp says. "But there's a certain honor to it. People might think it's barbaric, but the code says if you hurt a guy, you just stop [fighting]. There's a way to respect each other on the ice. Sometimes that [code] is not met. There's an accountability to this game. If you behave a certain way, there will be consequences that go beyond two minutes in the penalty box."
That policing keeps the league's brotherhood intact. Rupp makes a point of describing both his teammates and opponents in just that way, brothers who respect the code against rogues who do not. The connection allows Rupp to balance a violent sport with his religion, and with it, fuel his commitment to charity. That, Rupp says, is his purpose.
"I have a platform to make a difference," he says.
Rupp and his wife, Christi, both born-again Christians, sponsor nine children internationally through the Ronald McDonald House, a program that assists families affected by illness and injury.
"When a child is seriously ill," Rupp told The New York Times, "the last thing you want to worry about are the bills and whether there's food on the table. If we can help these people sleep peacefully for a few hours and not fret over other issues, we should."
That involvement didn't prevent Mike and Christi from becoming close to a 12-year-old boy named Austin, who died of bone cancer two years ago when Rupp was playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that time, the Rupps also reached out to Nicole Cleland, a woman from South Bend, Penn., who lost her 7-year-old daughter and unborn child and suffered serious injuries when her car was struck by a drunk driver. Rupp helped raise money for Cleland by organizing an autograph session with his Penguins teammates.
Rupp talks about "perspective" with a reverence that doesn't evaporate when the TV crews go home. He's not your ordinary bruiser, despite a reputation for aggressive play. Rupp has been with five teams in his eight-year career, including the Devils, and has friends throughout the league. Yet Rupp makes it clear to former teammates that no one – not even a buddy – is immune to a monster hit against the boards.
And therein lies the other half of the code: There's no place for favoritism in the NHL.
"When I signed with Pittsburgh [in 2009]," Rupp says, "the first thing I told [former Devils teammate] Zach Parise is, 'I'll never do anything to hurt you, but I have a job to do. If I have you lined up for a hit, I'm taking it.' It's understood. It's nothing personal."
That's not just rhetoric: Rupp was in the middle of a nationally televised controversy last May, when the Rangers were on the verge of losing the Eastern Conference Finals to the Devils. It was during Game 4 that Rupp roughed up goaltender Martin Brodeur, sparking a chaotic scene that ended with John Tortorella and Peter DeBoer, the teams' respective coaches, challenging each other to fight.
Rupp explained that his attack on Brodeur wasn't meant to injure or to provoke a direct confrontation with his former teammate. Instead, Rupp says, "I was trying to stir things up, give us a wake-up call.
"We were sitting in the locker room with a defeated feeling in the series," he says. "We had no emotion at all. So I went out there for a shift [on the ice] and again, it's that fine line. I wasn't trying to do anything outrageous, but to get my teammates going."
The outburst paid little dividend for the Rangers, who went on to lose in six games. Rupp has since looked to repair the damage. He has spoken to several of the Devils and was told there are no hard feelings, not even from Brodeur. The two probably would've cleared the air in person this fall, but the NHL's lingering strike kept players off the ice and out of each other's lives.
Rupp and a few other Rangers spent November and December working out at a rink in Westchester. That's as close as they came to connecting until the strike was settled in January. In the meantime, Rupp enjoyed a rare autumn and Christmas season at home in Oakland with his family. Mike, Christi and their four children picked Bergen when he signed with the Rangers in 2011, lured by its comfort and "hominess."
"It's got a small-town feel, but we're not too far from the city," Rupp says. "It's awesome during the season that I'm able to take the train from Ridgewood. Just pulling into Penn Station and then Madison Square Garden – it's a great feeling."
Those adrenaline rushes have been replaced by a slower, more peaceful existence, including taking the children – ranging from a newborn to a 10-year-old – to a pumpkin farm. Rupp laughs when he says, "I'd like to be playing right now, obviously, but I couldn't ask for anything better. I'm getting a chance to do things I've never done before."
With all the free time, you couldn't blame Rupp for drifting backward in history – all the way to 2003, when he scored the clinching goal in the Devils' Stanley Cup Championship. Rupp was only a rookie then, naïve in the belief that "if I stayed in New Jersey a few more years there'd be a few more Cups. I didn't realize those chances are few and far between."
Rupp says he'll indulge those memories after he has retired, though at 33, his playing days are well past the halfway point. That's why the little things matter more than they used to. Hockey, after all, isn't just a sport. It's a cult, a philosophy.
Every time he steps onto the ice, Rupp knows his legacy is measured not only in how he plays, but how he lives. Even if it's never put in writing.