COME PLAYOFF TIME, THERE'S NO WORSE PLACE FOR A PLAYER TO BE THAN TRAPPED INSIDE THE PENALTY BOX, THE NHL'S DISPLAY CASE OF ANGER, HOPE AND SHAME
COMEDY IN Las Vegas includes everything from stand-up acts to improv troupes, casino ventriloquists to Carrot Top, but Ryan Reaves's favorite show is held inside the penalty box at T-Mobile Arena. A bottom-six bruiser for the Golden Knights, Reaves slings punches and punch lines, and he saves his best material for the Sin City sin bin—or the one in any other town. He is seen often trading barbs with opposing pugilists. Sometimes he works the crowd. "It's hilarious to me," Reaves says. "You get put in this little glass box, and everyone gets to stare at and shame you. It's like a roast."
There are so many reasons to love the penalty box, a singular swath of sports real estate smaller than most walk-in closets. Only hockey punishes its miscreants so publicly—isolated from teammates on the other side of the rink, barricaded behind a heavy door bolted shut with a steel latch, separated from the first row of fans by just a half-inch of tempered glass, guarded under strict supervision by an official from the NHL's sweater-vested legion. At its core, the penalty box is an adult timeout: Enter, sit and think hard about what you've done.
"A timeout," Reaves says, "except at the zoo."
The exact dimensions vary from rink to rink, but each penalty box functions the same. There are two in every arena: one across from the home team's bench, one across from the visitors'. In between the boxes, referees review video with oversized headsets and undersized tablets. On the visitors' side, extra pucks are chilled inside a minifreezer set to around 10° F. Both boxes are furnished with water bottles, athletic tape, ice bags and a metal bench, plus stacks of towels that are particularly useful. "God, these guys are hygienically challenged," one veteran NHL off-ice official laments. "All they want to do is spit."
From full-throated brawls to controversial calls, the penalty box has played host to many memorable scenes in the history of hockey; it also cameoed in the April 15, 1978, episode of Saturday Night Live, in which a gritty Quebecker played by host Michael Sarrazin invites an opponent (Dan Aykroyd) to smoke pot while serving fighting majors—a hot-boxed box.
But the spotlight is never brighter than during the Stanley Cup playoffs, when a single visit can tilt an entire series (box, page 76). Zebras swallowing whistles sounds like PETA's worst nightmare, but laissez-faire playoff refereeing is more myth than fact: In 11 of 12 postseasons since the 2004--05 lockout, the rate of minor penalties per game increased compared with the rate in the regular season. An uptick in roughings is largely to blame as blowouts beget third-period shenanigans; players otherwise exhibit discipline by reducing stick infractions like hooking and tripping, and there are fewer fights. Even so, roughly 20% of power plays were converted in '17--18, meaning that this spring, the temporary resident of the penalty box will emerge in disappointment about one out of five times.
"It's the most nerve-racking two or four minutes of your life, feeling guilty, just praying they don't score," says Brad Marchand, the noted Bruins nuisance who was on his best behavior (zero PIMs) through the first two games of Boston's first-round series against Toronto.
And when the stakes aren't as steep?
"It's like solitary confinement," says former NHL enforcer Brad May. "But sometimes it's a good place to hang out."
MAY WOULD know. Now a member of the Golden Knights broadcast team, the 46-year-old forward who retired in 2010 had 309 penalty minutes as a rookie for Buffalo in 1991--92. His memorable sin bin stories include bumming bubblegum from penalty-box attendants, getting soaked by airborne beer, and betting an NHL referee $50 that a disallowed goal should've counted. (May won; the money went to his favorite charity, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.) "I loved it," he says. "Plus I like being by myself. Sometimes I just needed five to 10 minutes to refocus."
To paraphrase another famous bench-sitter, life in the penalty box is like a box of chocolates: Guilty hockey players never know what they're going to get. For Dallas forward Antoine Roussel, a 17-minute sentence (two minutes for instigating, five for fighting and 10 for misconduct) against St. Louis on March 3 included actual chocolate. "I was in the box, thinking this is getting way too long," he says. "Then one of the guys who works there shows up with chocolate chip cookies. He offered, I got two. They were amazing."
Everyone does his time in a different way. Jeremy Roenick, the 20-year NHL vet and now an NBC analyst, used to sign autographs and steal popcorn from unsuspecting fans by reaching between the glass near the side door. Former tough guy Rob Ray, who was with the Sabres from 1989 to 2003, treated trips like counseling sessions, chatting up off-ice officials about everything from romantic relationships to retirement plans. "I figured out my whole life in there," says Ray, whose 3,207 career PIMs—sixth all-time—total more than 53 hours of therapy.
Some enjoy the intimacy with fans. Common catcalls are boring, all f-bombs and you-sucks, but creative insults cut deep. "The most brutal one [I ever heard]: 'I see more ice in my glass than you do all night,'" says Capitals forward Tom Wilson, the NHL's penalty minutes leader over the past three seasons (483). "It's always pretty funny what you hear." Or as was the case in Vancouver, where for six years the Green Men—a pair of fans in skintight bodysuits—haunted penalty box guests at Rogers Arena, what you cannot un-see.
There have been some unfortunate incidents too—a product of the proximity between player and spectator. Earlier this season, two days after spritzing a trash-talking Minnesota fan with water from the penalty box, Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black, was subjected to racist taunts in Chicago after scrapping with Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy. "It's a weird concept," says Smith-Pelly. "Fans think that just because that glass is there, they can do and say whatever they want."
On March 29, 2001, in Philadelphia, the glass didn't matter much either. Tagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct, Toronto's Tie Domi was doused with beer by some Flyers faithful upon entering the box. Domi of the 333 career fights (first all-time) then grabbed a water bottle, stood up, turned around and squeezed. As he sat down, a bricklayer named Chris Falcone came flying from the second row, swiping at Domi and ultimately crashing through the panels. "Now they've got the tall glass," Domi says. (The NHL currently mandates that partitions behind the penalty bench must be five feet taller than the dasher boards.) "Changed the rules because of it, I guess."
The box can even become meaningful to those who have never served a minute. Dani Probert hadn't planned to spread her late husband Bob's ashes there after the final Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena last April, but something about the moment felt right. So she asked Chris Chelios, one of Bob's former teammates, to fetch a screwdriver and open a heart-shaped marble canister she takes with her everywhere. An impromptu ceremony was held. "This is for you, Big Bob," they whispered as Dani sprinkled his remains on the floor beneath the bench.
"I think we both know Bob spent a lot of time in the penalty box, considering he had 3,300 career PIMs," she says. "It just made sense."
THE PENALTY box didn't always exist—until 1916 transgressions were punished by monetary fines that referees issued like speeding tickets. Beginning in the early '30s, the NHL chucked offenders into a single space shared by miscreants of both teams—awkward. But on the night before Halloween in 1963, Montreal's Terry Harper and Toronto's Bob Pulford came to blows in the box at Maple Leaf Gardens. After that, there would be two separate boxes. Recently Harper watched some archival footage of the brawl and started laughing. "No real reaction other than, What the hell was I crazy about?" he says. "What could've set us off?"
A whistle, for starters. The stages of penalty grief always begin with denial and anger. "I don't think I've gone into many penalty boxes without making sure that the referee knew he was wrong," Roenick says. "With a lot of expletives." How many cameras have been destroyed, how many water bottles chucked, how many tempers lost? Furious over a cross-checking call in Florida last November, Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri slammed his stick and accidentally caught an off-ice official in the face. Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour once shut the door so hard that the glass shattered.
But when rage subsides, what's left is guilt. Most penalties are served alone, and you can only watch as your teammates have to fix your mess. Muscles tense. Chitchat stops. Stare straight ahead, wait for the attendant to count down from 10, and get the hell out of Dodge. The penalty box might be the only place where prisoners want to serve their full sentences—especially come springtime. "Every second you're in the penalty box in the playoffs, no kidding, your ass is puckered up," May says. "You're so on edge. If the other team scores, then you're the horse's ass. You're culpable, and you're blamable."
Even innocent souls feel guilty. Consider a reading from the Book of Peter, as in former Bruins forward Peter McNab. Late in Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals, with Boston leading Montreal 4--3, McNab volunteered to serve what stands as the NHL's most iconic postseason infraction, known simply now as Too Many Men. His rationale: Boston had killed all five minors that McNab had committed that season, making him something of a good-luck charm. His dream: "I was going to step out, put the puck in the empty net, and we were going to win. I'm sitting there going, O.K. This is my destiny. I'm going to be the hero."
Instead, McNab had a front-row view when Canadiens center Jacques Lemaire led a rush along the right wing and teed a drop pass for Guy Lafleur, who blasted the tying goal. (Spoiler alert: The Canadiens scored in overtime, then later captured their fourth straight Stanley Cup.) Almost four decades later, McNab still gets queasy thinking about the penalty. He can picture himself inside the box at the Montreal Forum, watching Bruins defenseman Rick Smith retreat as Lemaire charges ahead, watching Lafleur follow behind....
"Maybe I should've double-penalized ourselves, just reached out and grabbed Lafleur, as he was coming down the wall," McNab says. "Maybe that would've been my moment in history instead."
IN HOCKEY, as in any business, sometimes it's best to think outside the box. While offenders spend their minor penalties chirping with fans and sneaking sweets, what unfolds on the ice during their exile often has major implications, particularly in the playoffs. Confined for tripping with five minutes left and his team ahead 3--2 in Game 1 on April 12, Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky watched as Seth Jones—the Blue Jackets blueliner he had tripped—cranked the tying goal a few feet away. Columbus won in overtime, completing a comeback that included an earlier third-period power play tally after Wilson was sent off for charging. "That cost us the game," the Washington bruiser said. "That's a critical moment."
Through the first half of the first round, these Stanley Cup playoffs have run afoul of the rules at key moments. On April 13, the end of Winnipeg's 4--1 win over Minnesota in Game 2 devolved into multiple melees, yielding 70 PIMs. The next day the floodgates opened for Tampa Bay after Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy took a delay-of-game penalty, which led to a power play goal by the Lightning's Alex Killorn. The Atlantic Division champs coasted, 5--3.
Other transgressors have received punishment beyond a mere timeout: Kadri earned a three-game suspension for boarding the Bruins' Tommy Wingels, and Kings defenseman Drew Doughty missed Game 2 in Las Vegas for delivering an illegal hit to the head. Those punishments were levied by NHL director of player safety George Parros, the Princeton-educated, ex--Ducks enforcer (1,092 career PIMs) whose claim to penalty box fame came during an Anaheim practice in 2007--08, when he ducked into the bin to chitchat with noted puckhead Snoop Dogg.
Celebrity encounters aside, though, there is nothing sweeter than making good upon release. Freshly discharged during the first period of Game 1 at home, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin grabbed a loose puck in the defensive zone, weaved end to end, and roofed a backhander over Flyers goalie Brian Elliott. As the crowd erupted, Malkin spread his arms and howled, the sound of a sinner who had found atonement ... at least until he was whistled for slashing less than two minutes later. He was then escorted back to the lockup.
"IT'S THE MOST NERVE-RACKING TWO OR FOUR MINUTES OF YOUR LIFE, FEELING GUILTY, JUST PRAYING THEY DON'T SCORE," SAYS MARCHAND.
"FANS THINK THAT JUST BECAUSE THAT GLASS IS THERE, THEY CAN DO AND SAY WHATEVER THEY WANT," SAYS SMITH-PELLY.