Home > Culture, Sports > Ray Emery and the Entwined Deficiencies of Hockey’s “Code” and NHL Discipline

Ray Emery and the Entwined Deficiencies of Hockey’s “Code” and NHL Discipline

In the third period of last night’s NHL game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, moments after the Caps had gone up 7-0 over the woeful Flyers (the Oilers have a bad record, but they’re not that bad), some predictable violence ensued. “The Code” of hockey, you see, seems to stipulate that in the event of a lopsided loss, the losing team must show that they won’t be pushed around on the ice as they have been on the scoreboard by engaging in reckless violence outside of the accepted limits of the usual game.

This is part and parcel of the increasingly absurd justifications for violence in the sport favoured by traditionalists, many of which now stem directly from little more than hurt feelings. The recent inevitability of such rough stuff in a blowout loss has made watching such games into a queasy experience for fans not impressed by hockey’s extraneous violence. Fans of the the losing team, in particular, have it especially hard. Not only must those fans witness their team embarrassed in the final score, they must also watch them humiliate themselves with thuggery (although some fans, especially those in Philadelphia last night, were irrationally excited by the punching).

Situations like last night’s are partly a consequence of the general meaningless of score differential in the NHL’s standings structure. If, like in many major European football leagues, goal differential was a primary tiebreaker in the standings at season’s end, running up the score in a lopsided game would have a tangible point, rather than feel like an unsportsmanlike slight by the stampeding victors. Win totals tend to separate deadlocked teams well enough (and with only playoff spots at stake and no relegation in the league, sorting of basement-dwellers is less vital than in, say, the Premier League), but making goal differential at least a secondary tiebreak factor could have some effect at least.

The debate over evading such incidents will be muted, however, when compared to the already-vehement division over the actions of Flyers goaltender Ray Emery in the midst of the wild line brawl that followed the seventh Capitals goal. With each team’s skaters pairing off into fighting duos, Emery skated the length of the ice to challenge Caps goalie Braden Holtby to fisticuffs. Holtby clearly wanted no part of Emery (as the video below demonstrates). Declining a fight is viewed with disdain by proponents of the Code’s hyper-masculine ideology, but the reply by the challenger is rarely to engage in violence nonetheless. Emery was not deterred by Holtby’s evident unwillingness, and attacked him anyway.

As can be plainly seen, Emery lays into Holtby, including some very dangerous punches to the back of the head. It’s a very uneven bout as hockey fights go, and bluff Code-upholders would doubtlessly declare that if Holtby wasn’t such a wuss (if he “defended” himself, as Emery claimed after the game that he gave him an opportunity to do), it wouldn’t have been so bad. But as bad it was, and what made it worse was referee Francois St. Laurent standing by, hands literally on hips, doing nothing to stop it and even waving away Holtby’s Capitals teammate Michael Latta when he attempted to intervene. The Code allows an alarming assault by one player on another, but NHL rules doesn’t allow a third player to enter an established two-player fight. Dangerous actions like Emery’s are punished less strictly than any attempt to prevent them, which is not a ringing endorsement of the league’s ability (or willingness) to curb such incidents.

What this unflattering moment in the continued controversy over pro hockey’s on-ice violence demonstrates is the deficiency of the Code in effectively redressing perceived wrongs and resolving inter-team grievances. Ken Dryden discusses hockey violence in terms of Freudian transference and emotional release in his book The Game, but its uneasy collaboration with league disciplinary standards has proven insufficient in defusing tensions, only extending them, deferring them. Grudges and feuds are rarely resolved with further violence, only exacerbated. They calcify and cease to pain the aggrieved only with considerable time and fallow tensions, and even then can endure as niggling minor dissatisfactions. The Code will not allow this healing period to commence, with its focus on mob-like retribution (and it’s not like a Caps goon is going to fight Emery next time the teams meet, either). Resolution is left to the league’s disciplinary discretion, which is more up to the task but rarely wholly effective either.

This should particularly be the case in the Emery-Holtby incident. Can the NHL suspend a player for fighting another who did not want to fight and beating him badly? Not without setting a precedent that could be fatal for fighting in the sport (and cheers to that possibility, unlikely though it is). Indeed, the referee involved is more likely to be disciplined for his failure to protect Holtby from Emery, to properly manage a volatile situation. But St. Laurent himself was handcuffed by the rules he must uphold. He allowed the players to fight and kept Latta from being the third man in; this, by the letter of the NHL law, was his job. The Code and the Law, in this case, are at clear cross-purposes. And unless one or the other adjusts its shifting but absolute strictures, more black eyes like the one inflicted on the NHL last night in Philadelphia wait in the wings.

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Categories: Culture, Sports

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