NHL suspends Torres for Hossa hit; have we achieved incentive compatibility?

Lynne Kiesling

This year’s NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are in the first round, and so far the violence has been horrific:

“The most vicious and, perhaps, disgraceful first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs” was the verdict of Stu Hackel, the former director of broadcasting for the N.H.L., and this is now close to a universal view—if you except Don Cherry and Mike Milbury, who may not actually live in this universe, but rather in some other, remote dimension, where it is forever 1959. The list of uglinesses allowed is too long and depressing to entirely enumerate, but it runs from Nashville’s Shea Weber’s slamming the head of Detroit’s brilliant Swede, Henrik Zetterberg, against the glass—not once, but twice—in what was clearly a deliberate attempt to injure, and could easily have ended with a concussion, not to mention a broken neck; to our own Rangers’ Carl Hagelin elbowing the Senators’ highly skilled captain, Daniel Alfredsson (good trade for the Rangers); to the assault of the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres on the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa.

Adam Gopnik mentions it only generally, but I am angry and disappointed that some of my Pittsburgh Penguins belong on that list of ugliness too. In fact, last Saturday’s Penguins-Flyers game and its 160-plus penalty minutes was so vile that it doesn’t even deserve to be called hockey. Yes, it’s a physical game, yes, you have to be tough and to expect physical play, but the brutality of the past couple of weeks that includes elbows up, leaving the feet, aiming for the heads of opponents, and slamming heads into glass is not simply physical. It’s barbaric.

It’s also not in the long-run interest of the sport, either as a sport or as a business, as Sidney Crosby’s long, long concussion and TBI recovery attests to. Injuries that reduce the productivity of the athletes and shorten their careers are not long-run profit maximizing, despite the troglodytic protestations of the retrograde few who claim that fighting is the reason they watch and attend games.

In a post I wrote on moral hazard and protective gear and rules in hockey seven years ago, I suggested a rule that the KP Spouse and I have discussed for a long time that could induce better long-run incentive compatibility in the violence in the NHL: if you injure another player and he misses a number of games, you must sit out that same number of games, without pay.

Since that time the NHL has instituted coach fines as well as player fines for injury-producing violence; sometimes those fines are laughable, such as the $2500 fine levied against Weber for the double-whammy Zetterberg hit. They also do suspend players, but there’s a lot of tension and disagreement about how long is too long; GMs don’t want their aggressive players out of commission for too long, but the NHL recognizes the long-run negative consequences of head injuries. But what I don’t understand is why the team GMs think in such a static manner that they object to long suspensions for violence — they object to the short-run loss of the use of the athlete, but they fail to internalize the longer term negative effects. If their enforcers dial it back and still play physically but within the rules, all teams will benefit from the productivity and the longevity, particularly of the star players that are frequent targets of less-skilled hit-oriented players. Those star players are the ones that most people pay to see play, and the GMs thinking statically are putting themselves in a low-payoff outcome of a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Fines and suspensions for head-targeted injury-producing hits have been an issue all year, as newly-appointed NHL head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has tried to balance these competing perspectives on injury-producing violence. Yesterday he announced the terms of the suspension that Raffi Torres will serve for his horrific, late, calculating hit on Marian Hossa on Tuesday night: a 25-game suspension, the third-longest suspension ever in the NHL.

But it’s not just the long suspension; because Torres has a history of such violations he’s classified as a repeat offender, so he will forfeit $21,341 in salary per regular season game that he misses next season. That rule has some of the incentive effects of what I’ll call “the KP rule” that you sit out without pay for as long as the person you injured is out. His penalty does not tie the duration of his suspension without pay to the duration of Hossa’s injuries, but I agree with Isaac Smith at the Bleacher Report that Shanahan’s decision is a good one, for two reasons — it punishes Torres for his vicious behavior, and it also indicates that Shanahan is willing to set a precedent and make an example of chronic violators to reduce the career-ending head injuries that threaten the game, as a sport and as a business.

Adam Gopnik makes the important general point:

The supposedly self-policing ethic points to the real problem: games are played by rules, and we enjoy them because they involve wild improvised action in a context of rules. Without them, the game can’t count as one of our pleasures. … The rules are the game. The Sedins are skill players playing within the rules, and the other guy is playing outside of them, and [by not penalizing Brad Marchand for his vicious hit on Daniel Sedin last fall] the league effectively sides with the guy who doesn’t want to play by the rules.

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