Tuomo Ruutu circles his opponent, fists raised. His gear is scattered across the ice, as are his teammatescuriously watching, waiting. Who goes for that first punch, opening himself to either victory or vulnerability?

They meet in the middle and start throwing punches, hoping for contact. The referees circle like well-trained vultures, ready to descend as soon as things go too far or the two players wear themselves out. The Finn’s helmet flies off. The blows continue. Finally, with a flying leap from Ruutu, it’s finished. Fourteen thousand fans take full measure of this respite from a season of inexplicable mediocrity and roar their approval.

For hard-core hockey fans, it was just another day at the rink. But the fight also extracted a price: Ruutu suffered a head injury that has kept him sidelined for eight games and counting, and his participation in next month’s Vancouver Olympics is in jeopardy. Since his departure, though, the Hurricanes have actually seen a modest improvement in form during a dismal campaign, winning four games out of eight, including a big home win against the Boston Bruins.

It’s not easy to say whether that fight was worth itto Ruutu, to the ‘Canes, to his fellow Finns, to the fans. Despite the obvious risks, fighting is, and remains, an integral part of the game, including for this hockey fan and reporter: The first fight I remember seeing, in person and fully comprehending what was going on, may have been one involving former ‘Cane bruiser Jesse Boulerice. It’s not important who his opponent was (the man would hit anything that moved); even though his career with Carolinaand in the NHL in generalcould be described as lackluster, Boulerice left a lasting impression on at least one youngster watching. What Boulerice and many others who have come before and after him do is a thing of terrible beauty. It’s exhilarating, and in essence it’s a vicarious pleasure. Tim Gleason gets to go out there and do what many fans wish they could dosock that Buffalo Sabre in the face. Who that Sabre represents in real life … well, we’ll let you and Freud sort that out.

Fighting is technically illegal, and most of it is covered under Rule 47 of the NHL rule book. (Rule 48 concerns head-butting and Rule 49 covers kicking.) Rule 47 contains more than five pages of explanations of fighting’s illegality and the ways in which it must be illegally conducted. Curiously, these five pages are prefaced by the following passage, which seems to excuse the referees from doing anything at all:

The Referees are provided very wide latitude in the penalties with which they may impose under this rule. This is done intentionally to enable them to differentiate between the obvious degrees of responsibility of the participants either for starting the fighting or persisting in continuing the fighting. The discretion provided should be exercised realistically.

Even with such broad enforcement latitude, there are some rulescall it the unwritten code of the ice. If you must do it, it had better be bare-fisted and with a helmet. You don’t jump a man from behind. You don’t keep throwing fists once the referees break it up. You don’t intervene as a third man in a fight. You don’t keep going once your opponent is very obviously down for the count. Aside from being dishonorable, those things will get you kicked out and possibly fined or suspended. These days, instigating a fight will get you an additional two minutes, as ‘Canes defenseman Tim Gleason discovered after an October fight (see photo and caption above, video below).

The person to land a few good blows and tackle the other guy is the unofficial winner. A good brawl will earn you deafening cheers and the battering of sticks on the outside of the bench from your appreciative teammates. You’ll head to the box for a few minutes of down time, a tradition that stretches back all the way to 1922, when the rule was first conceived. “Five for fighting” is the most glamorous penalty you can take in the sports world. For those five minutes, you are a rock star. Afterward, you can go back to whatever it is you were before, whether that be a battle-hardened veteran or a fuzzy-cheeked call-up from the Albany River Rats.

Longtime ‘Canes radio personality and Hockey Broadcast Hall-of-Famer Chuck Kaiton says fighting solves more problems than it creates.

“Those of us who have followed the sport for a long time understand the mentality,” Kaiton says. “Fighting has to stay in hockey, although that probably sounds strange to fans who don’t understand the game. When you’re playing a game on skates and going at the speeds you’re going at in a confined area, there’s a lot of frustration that you don’t have in other sports. One of the vehicles to vent those frustrations is to fight. There’s so much padding on these guys, so they’re not going to get hurt, but it gives them an outlet to vent.”

The casus belli for on-ice smackdowns can vary. Sometimes fights are used to protect star playersmuch as baseball pitchers will retaliate when a teammate is hit by an opposing pitcher. If someone runs Cam Ward or hits Eric Staal from behind, you have to hope the ‘Canes’ young call-ups will defend his honor. More often, though, fighting is gamesmanship used to change momentum. One player will tap the shin guard of another with his at the face-off circle and mutter a few words, and he’ll either accept or decline the invitation to dance.

Gleason says that referees have become much better at keeping hockey’s checks-and-balances system closely monitored. He said he tries to avoid fighting whenever possible, but it serves its purpose.

“I try to do it for a reason most of the time,” Gleason says.

“You love it, be honest,” his eavesdropping teammate Niclas Wallin chimes in.

“Yeah,” he laughs. “Sometimes I need to protect myself. I’d rather play the game, but my part of the game is being physical, and sometimes it comes your way.”

In rare instances, though, fights become a sort of airing of grievances. Often these are overhypedmany expected fireworks from the Hurricanes’ Erik Cole after Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik hit him from behind in a 2006 game and broke his neck, thus causing him to miss the rest of the regular season and all but the final two games of Carolina’s Stanley Cup. To the disappointment of fans, however, Cole seemed uninterested in settling the score in subsequent matchups.

And then there’s Ruutu, the peskiest, hardest-hitting forward on the teamand yet very friendly off the ice. The fighting injury that felled the winger had a backstory: In a game against the Avalanche in Denver on Oct. 23, Ruutu hit veteran Darcy Tucker from behind, leaving him with a concussion. Tucker had to be helped off the ice and would miss eight games, while Ruutu sat for a two-game suspension levied by the NHL. When Tucker and Ruutu revisited the dispute earlier this month, Tucker’s blows to Ruutu’s head near the end of the fight left the Finn glassy-eyed and slack-jawed and sent him back to the dressing room with a possible concussion. (The ever-secretive Maurice regime, however, is still referring to it as an “upper body injury.”)

Fighting is dangerous, no question. Ruutu can attest to that. One wayward fist and you’re facing months of breathing through your mouth and viewing the world through eyes that refuse to work properly. But it’s worth pointing out that it’s no different from the rest of the game. Many more grievous injuries have occurred as a result of hits from behind, flying skates, high sticks and pucks to the face. A player can stick out his leg and cripple another man for life.

But does it set a terrible example for children of how adults resolve disagreements? ESPN.com writer John Buccigross tends to disagree, and by coincidence invokes the name of Ruutu’s erstwhile opponent. “I don’t think anything really gets us closer to any of our questionable thresholds unless it involves a ladle of Jack Daniels and a sledgehammer,” he wrote in a 2007 column. As far as violent tendencies are concerned, “We largely are what we are and there is nothing Darcy Tucker can do about it.”

Still, the sport is no longer as violent as it used to be. The number of fights has dropped from the 1980s heyday of the sport’s greatest star, Wayne Gretzky, from almost one per game to around 0.6 per game. These days, not every team carries a player whose job is little more than to fight. In today’s speedy, free-flowing game, it’s an indulgence to devote a roster spot to a goon instead of a fast skater with scoring talent.The Carolina Hurricanes no longer carry an enforcer. Gleason, Andrew Alberts or Tom Kostopoulos will drop the gloves if they have to, but on a formerly penalty-plagued team that has been embarrassed too many times this season, going down swinging seems to be the last thing on everyone’s mind. That’s why the pugilistic winger Tim Conboy hasn’t been recalled from Albany since early November.

Kaiton says fighting almost always serves a purpose in today’s game, and “staged” fights are a thing of the past (and Russia, a ready source of YouTube-friendly free-for-alls).

“The players have self-policed it out of the game to a ridiculous extent,” Kaiton says. “The fighting just for fighting’s sake is something you rarely see these days.”

Every once in a while on a slow news day, pundits start throwing their two cents in on whether fighting should be eliminated from the NHL. It’s worth noting that not all top-level hockey leagues allow fighting. European hockey clubs and Olympic squads are banned from fighting, among other examples. The NHL wouldn’t be in uncharted territory if it cracked down on fighting, but Gleason called the idea of eliminating it “crazy,” saying it would cost the league plenty of fans.

“If you watch while a fight’s happening, you don’t see one person in their seats,” Gleason says. “Maybe that’s because they don’t allow that in any other sports. Guys make a living fighting, and if you take it out you’re going to have more hits to the head, more cases where guys are running around and are not going to be held accountable. That’s bad for the game.”

It would certainly lose its primitive appeal: Fighting in hockey is, in essence, a microcosm of sportbattle, safely contained by a sheet of glass protecting the unarmed spectators who pay to see them do it, but a battle nevertheless. Far from being an extracurricular sideshow, fighting is a part of hockey, a proudly unruly aspect, and the sport’s attachment to the practice is something that distinguishes it from other sports in today’s market. Where else in the civilized worldand no, I can’t bring myself to include mixed martial arts, a misleading title if there ever was onecan such things exist if not in a hockey arena?

Kaiton says fighting is part of what makes hockey a “niche” sport, and fewer fans are turned off by it than one might think.

“I don’t think fighting is the reason people don’t watchit’s the antithesis of it,” Kaiton says. “A very small percentage of the potential fan base gets turned off by fighting. I’m not saying fighting enhances the game, but it makes it unique.”

Fans love the self-administered justice in hockey known as fighting. The players themselves love it, too, or at least they put on a good show. But hockey, long the stepchild among America’s top sports, is always trying to find new, family-friendly ways of marketing itself without alienating its purist (that is, fight-loving) fan base. Banning fighting is far from a no-brainer, though, and the league will have at least one bitterly disappointed customer should it ever decide to do away with it.