The rules aren't written anywhere for quick reference but they exist nonetheless. And like the rules of the game they have been honed and revised and revisited over decades of bouts heavyweight and otherwise, by hundreds of combatants talented or otherwise.
Some of the rules are covered in the NHL Official Rules. But like all rules, they are open to interpretation and are rarely discussed by those who employ them most regularly.
Herein, thanks to candid discussions with two of the league's most respected, recently retired fighters -- Rob Ray, sixth all time in penalty minutes with 3,193, and Jeff Odgers, a commercial beef farmer now midway through his first year of retirement in his hometown of Spy Hill, Saskatchewan -- is an inside look at the shadowy world of the NHL fighter.
"And it still looks like this," the hawk-beaked winger admits with a laugh.
Odgers' first NHL fight came in his first NHL game, second shift, against Mick Vukota.
"It was all right. I was so damn nervous the fight actually calmed me down," Odgers recalled.
Odgers and Ray, who does analysis for Buffalo Sabres broadcasts after 14 seasons and 894 NHL games, have offered their recollections and observations, their Do's and Don'ts on the role that many consider to be the most difficult in the game.
Do ... Respect your opponent
"Play it clean, you can have a little fun with it if you win (the fight), but don't embarrass the guy. He's out there doing what you do for a living and you have to respect that. You don't embarrass the guy, you can beat him, but you don't embarrass him," Ray said.
"Nobody wants to lose a fight," Odgers added. "What do they show on TV? They show the guy skating off after a fight, bleeding. You don't want to be that guy."
Has he ever been that guy?
"Oh yeah," said Odgers. "You're not going to win every fight. My style of fighting there wasn't a lot of defense. I went for it a lot."
He recalls one night in his second season allowing a Marty McSorley right hand to sneak through onto his oft-mangled nose. The linesman asked if he was all right and Odgers said he'd be fine if the linesman would just direct him to the penalty box. This was in Odgers' home rink in San Jose.
"I didn't even know where my own penalty box was," he said.
Don't ... Pick on a smaller guy
"You can pick on a smaller guy who doesn't fight, but you don't fight him, you just tell him a thing or two about what might happen to him. It's OK to go after a bigger guy, but you don't fight a smaller guy unless he comes after you and you don't fight a guy who doesn't want to fight," Ray said.
Do ... Pick your spots
According to Ray, there is a time and place for everything: "Never put your team in a bad situation because you want to start a fight. If your up by two (goals) or so, it's OK or if you think you need to go out there and wake up the guys or change the momentum, OK. But you don't ever hurt the team or the chances of winning."
Don't ... Keep at it if your opponent's hurt
"No matter what the situation or how much you maybe don't like the guy, if he's down or he's really hurt it's over," Ray said. "You stop throwing punches immediately. It's part of the code; he would do the same for you."
Don't ... Fight a guy who is clearly at a disadvantage
For the most part, fighters will let up on an opponent if his sweater is pulled up over his head or if he hasn't got his gloves off -- unless, Odgers said, he is a player who is known to do just that: "You kind of hand out what's warranted."
Don't ... Bite or eye-gouge
Although, let's be honest, it happens. "It all happens out there," Odgers said. "I never wanted it to happen to me nor to do it to someone else. ... I think I was bit once."
Do ... The right thing for the team
"You don't make excuses you don't back down. There might be nights when you don't feel like going or your hands hurt or there's something wrong with your shoulder or something. My feeling is that if you're healthy enough to dress, you're healthy enough to do your job," Ray said. "If your job is to fight then that's what you do, you may not have to (fight) on a given night, but if you do you have to go no matter what. There are some guys in this league who think they can help the team by scoring a goal or stick handling or something. Hey, you're there to do your job and if you can't do your job don't try and kid yourself that you're going to do something else."
Don't ... Just talk
"There might be a time when you have to goad a guy into a fight and then maybe the coach told you to turtle and sucker him into a penalty," Ray said. "Sometimes you have to do that because it's what you're told and you have to do whatever it takes to help your team win, but guys don't like to do that. You don't like to talk a good fight; you want to fight a good fight. Guys maybe don't like to talk about it, but that's what they do and they're proud of that. You've got guys on the team whose role it is to score or stop someone from scoring or in the case of a fighter to protect someone or to give his team a lift. You want to be proud of what you do and nobody respects you if all you do is talk."
Don't ... Worry about being afraid
Odgers recalled being unable to sleep the night before a game early in his career. He worried about who was coming to town the next night, who he was going to have to fight. How it would turn out.
"That's all I'd think about," said Odgers "It almost consumes you. I was able to handle it later in my career better than at the start."
"It's always an interesting situation," said 6-foot-6 Atlanta defenseman Andy Sutton. "I've had a couple of fights with friends that I've played with on other teams. You look over in the penalty box and the guy gives you a little wink because he knows you've done your job. ... Any friend who's a real good friend would probably understand at the end of the game when you're out for a beer, or a pop."
One night Odgers and friend Kelly Chase chatted for about half an hour before a game with the Blues about bow hunting and then got into a dustup during the game. The next time they saw each other they picked right up where they left off -- with the discussion on hunting, not the brawling.
Rugged Atlanta defenseman Garnet Exelby fought friend and former teammate Darcy Hordichuk during the preseason this year.
"He tried to play it off like he didn't know it was me. I had to call him on that of course," says Exelby.
Do as dad says, not as dad does
Odgers has four children; twin 16-year-old girl basketball players and boys who are 10 and 7 and both involved in minor hockey. Explaining to his children what he did for a living, or why he would often come home looking like a side of beef, created some interesting dilemmas at home.
Why did people want to beat up their father? Was he going to fight that night? Why didn't he fight so-and-so?
"It was very upsetting when they were younger," Odgers says. "And it was very confusing."
As they became older, Odgers had to try and explain that the stitches and broken bones were real, that the violence wasn't a game that it was part of his reality. When his boys started playing hockey there was also some special explanation of what was acceptable at the NHL level wasn't going to be acceptable at minor hockey where the game was for fun.
"If my kids never got in a fight playing hockey that wouldn't bother me a bit," Odgers said.