Emery, Holtby, and the Code: Reflecting on the NHL's Behavioral Incentives

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Ray Emery #29 of the Philadelphia Flyers goes the length of the ice to challange Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals to a fight during the 3rd period in Philly on November 1, 2013. The Caps shut out the Flyers 7-0. - Bruce Bennett

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby wanted no part of an embarrassed and irritated Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery, who came looking for a fight last week in one of the NHL's more vicious line brawls in recent memory. But that didn't stop Holtby from having to use his face to stop Emery's fists. The situation will become a data point in a broader narrative about the role of fighting in pro hockey.

On Tuesday, Dirk proposed that we take pro sports bullies like Ray Emery -- and let's not kid ourselves, he technically didn't break the NHL Rulebook, but he totally broke The Code -- and the Miami Dolphins' Richie Incognito, and force them into a steel cage match and see how tough they really think they are:

Both of these guys could use a seismic event in the news cycle to shift the media spotlight off of them and onto something else, so perhaps the best way to do that is stage a spectacle which puts their episodes to bed: bring these two bullies in the ring together and let them duke it out.

You know, "like men."

I agree with the genius of Dirk's proposal in principle, even though I know it would never happen. Bullies should be held to account for their behavior, no matter what size or age they are, or how much money they make, or how valuable they are to their team. At least Emery received an instigator penalty, an inconsistently applied rule if ever there was one, for assaulting Holtby. The instigator rule states:

46.11 Instigator—An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season.

A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.

If the same player or goalkeeper is deemed to be the instigator of a second altercation in the same game, he shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a game misconduct.

When a player receives his third instigator penalty in one Regular season, he is automatically given a game misconduct following that third violation.

A player who is deemed to be both the instigator and aggressor of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, a ten-minute misconduct (instigator) and a game misconduct penalty (aggressor).

Emery actually received the full menu of penalties laid out in that final sentence, labeling him as both instigator and aggressor in this case.

I argued in this space earlier this year that, despite protests from the faint of heart, fighting isn't leaving pro hockey anytime soon because it's good for business -- at least intuitively so. We need better ways to measure its effects on ticket grosses to test the hypothesis. Regardless, when you look at whether or not fighting should be in hockey, or whether there's a realistic chance of getting rid of it, or what the effects on the game might be of eliminating it, you may not realize it, but you're looking at a complex puzzle of conflicting incentives. So Dirk's piece on Tuesday, and a rare football article I took in, got me thinking about incentives and The Code in the NHL.

Lydon Murtha has a great piece on the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin tragedy in Miami, and in it he notes that, in the aftermath, everybody loses:

The most unfortunate thing about this situation is the consequence it will have on the careers of both men. Richie’s marked himself now as a racist and a bigot, and unfortunately that could be the end of it. Martin is on the opposite end of the spectrum, but no more likely than Incognito to return to the NFL if he wants. In going to the media with his problem, Martin broke the code, and it shows that he’s not there for his teammates and he’s not standing up for himself. There might be a team that gives him a chance because he’s a good person, but the players will reject him. They’ll think, If I say one thing he’s going to the press. He’ll never earn the respect of teammates and personnel in the NFL because he didn’t take care of business the right way.

You might serve justice by severely penalizing Richie Incognito for being a racist and a bully -- but Jonathan Martin may never again find a job, if he decides to return to the NFL. And if he does find a job, it'll be difficult for him to gel with new teammates, until there has been a total regime change in the NFL's hierarchy of veterans, and how they and their coaches choose to lead players on the team. It's no surprise, then, that the only thing Braden Holtby has said on the record about the Emery incident since has been muted, to say the least:

Braden Holtby mostly has steered clear of talking about his much-discussed fight with Ray Emery last weekend; "Holtby, sporting some bruises on his forehead after the game, declined to offer much or any comment on the incident as did all of the Capitals who were asked," Katie reported after the game.

He opened up a tiny bit Wednesday afternoon, in a conversation with Al Galdi and Steve Czaban on ESPN 980. (Audio here.)

"It’s just something that happens," Holtby said. "Right after it, our focus was that we won a big hockey game that our club needed. Stuff happens during the game that you sometimes can’t control, and you just have to live with it, and react to things as best you can. And I thought that our performance the next game was a true showing of our character: that our main goal is to win no matter what happens."

Can you hear it?

"It's just something that happens."

"I'll get over it."

"It's no big deal."

It's almost like he's got Stockholm syndrome, and the next thing you'd expect to hear is "It was my fault for being there in the first place."

Holbty doesn't want to be the guy his teammates can't trust to not torch them, or to bail on them next time they vote on fighting -- a part of the game that literally helps guys get and keep jobs. The NHLPA voted overwhelmingly to keep fighting in the game, at least as recently as the 2011/2012 NHLPA/CBC Hockey Night in Canada Players' Poll.

To most of the hockey world I've seen covering last week's incident, Emery committed a big no-no. I share their opinion. Sure, he was penalized accordingly, and did not, at least by the letter of the NHL Rulebook, merit supplemental discipline. But he may later pay a price when the teams meet again, if one of the Caps crashes the net a little earnestly, or drops the mitts off the opening face-off to avenge their brutalized keeper. I don't wish injury on anyone, but I don't think anyone will feel too sorry for him. I certainly won't. That's what the NHL Code is all about, and why we have fighting in hockey in the first place: to align the incentives players face such that bullies are held accountable for their behavior when the words on paper in the NHL Rulebook can't mete out justice to match the crime.

To learn more about how the economic way of thinking can help understand hockey fighting and The Code as a way of mitigating conflicting incentives in ways the NHL Rulebook can't or doesn't, check out this EconTalk podcast this weekend, on unwritten codes in sports with George Mason University economist Russ Roberts and Duke University political scientist Michael Munger. It runs just over an hour. Munger also recommends The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL by Ross Bernstein, a copy of which I plan to pick up based on the inside jacket alone:

Hockey’s rules of engagement can be summarized in three categories: protection, intimidation, and retaliation. If one player challenges another player, that second player must answer the call and "show up" or else face the humiliation of being considered dirty, or even a coward. Worse yet, if that player refuses to right what was wronged and defend his actions, he risks having that incident escalate to a higher level, involving additional teammates. That is when the enforcers come off the bench to keep the peace, and that is also usually when the crowd goes wild. By the time two heavyweights drop the gloves, there may have been up to a dozen events between several different players that led up to that fight. That is all a part of the intricate matrix that makes up the Code. And this book will help to demystify that matrix for you.

The Code is completely up to date with the new league-wide rules changes, which were implemented following the NHL lockout of 2005, when the rules of engagement completely changed. This first-of-its-kind project provides an incredible window into an extremely controversial subject matter that always evokes passion. It’s a must-read for all puckheads!

(Stick tap: Café Hayek)

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