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Hockey's penalty box frequently houses some of the NHL's biggest stars and induces guilt, frayed nerves, prayer, fan photos and even self-reflection

by Art Thiel / @NHLSeattle_ /

For as much as the emotions and performance of sports have contributed to the language and culture of North America, fewer physical objects have become fixtures in everyday lexicon. But hockey's penalty box is one of them.

Isolating a miscreant in public view has been a part of the National Hockey League since the 1930s, when penalized players were placed in a separate space from the team benches. The space housed players from both teams until late October 1963 when Montreal's Terry Harper and Toronto's Bob Pulford picked up where they off, trading numerous punches in the communal penalty box. League officials quickly and widely decided the penalty box needed to be two separate boxes with walls and all. 

For decades, parents deployed a form of the penalty box when a misbehaving child was sent to his or her room. Today, of course, that sentence is what a kid wants -- banished to a place supplied with electronics and software sufficient to access instantly as many worlds as Luke Skywalker or Dora the Explorer. The "timeout" is a still popular parental strategy, temporarily separating the child from the place of misbehavior, but the area on confinement varies. 

About the only real-life equivalent to hockey's penalty box is what happens when the car you're driving is stopped in the neighborhood by a traffic cop. The vehicle acts as a sin bin, a punitive space apart from the action. The officer orders a costly sanction in a relatively few minutes, and public awareness develops when the spouse, neighbors or -- worst of all -- kids drive by.

But the driver is typically the only one affected. Hockey rules allow no substitution for two-minute minor infractions or during the five minutes for major penalties. If the opposing team scores on a powerplay during a minor penalty, the penalized player can return to the ice. The five minutes of a major infraction allows no substitution even if a goal or goals are scored. The penalty minutes represent two minutes of timed play in the game, so time spent in the box could certainly feel a lot longer with timeouts and other stoppages in play. 

Given the fast pace of play, particularly in the playoffs, time in the box for the penalized player means watching his team play short-handed because of his mess. Case in point: Vegas' Cody Eakin was called for a five-minute cross-checking penalty (using the shaft of his stick with both hands to hit San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski) during Game 7 of a first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series last spring. The Sharks, trailing 3-1 with 10 minutes left in the game, scored four straight goals in the five minutes and eventually won the game in overtime to save their season.

Brad Marchand is a star center for the Boston Bruins who is known for annoying opponents, which gets plenty of attention from NHL referees. Marchand has racked up 117 penalty minutes in 108 playoffs game, including winning a Cup with Boston in 2011 and just missed last season, losing to St. Louis in seven games. He was the penalty box twice during the Cup final last June. 

"It's the most nerve-racking two or four minutes of your life, just praying they don't score," said Brad Marchand to Sports Illustrated in 2018. "You feel trapped. You feel guilty. You're in a glass cage, people all around you taking pictures and you can't do anything."

Rob Ray, who played with the Buffalo Sabres from 1989 to 2003 and is No. 6 on the all-time penalty minutes list (3,207), knows something about the agony. Even though goals are scored about 20 percent of the time on power plays in the playoffs, one is all it takes if it happens in your time in the terrarium of iniquity.

"Every second you're in the penalty box in the playoffs, no kidding ... you're so on edge," he said to "If the other team scores, then you're the horse's ass. You're culpable, and you're blamable."

Besides the shunning for the player, the team consequence is immediate and unrecoverable. In football, yardage lost to penalties can be made up. In basketball, personal fouls accumulate toward disqualification, but may not reach it, and substitution is allowed. Baseball misconduct also allows replacement for ejection.

But there's no substitution, no replacement, for time.

For all its penchant for mayhem, hockey's rules are harsh.

Yet, for frequent foulers such as Ray, not all of his time in the box was useless. Rumination on his plight lasted only so long. Over the length of his career, he often talked with off-ice officials about real-life events, like romantic relationships and retirement plans.

"I figured out my whole life in there," Ray said of his rink-side counseling sessions. It added up to 53 hours of free therapy.

Distressing as are the immediate consequences, time lost in the box isn't exactly wasted if one does it right, as Ray points out. As with airline frequent-flier mileage, there's some delayed reward for all that uncomfortable sitting. A certain swagger attends the guys with higher PIM (penalty infraction minutes, though commonly shortened to "penalty minutes" ) It can be a measure of esteem in the hockey world; a burnishing of the reputation.

The player one behind Ray on the all-time minutes list, Craig Berube, won the Stanley Cup in June as head coach of the St. Louis Blues. Following a 21-year NHL career that included three Stanley Cups with Detroit, Brendan Shanahan became for several years the NHL's director of player safety. He is now president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Shanahan is 23rd on the all-time PIM list.

It's even hereditary. The son of the legendary Tie Domi, Max, is in his second season with Montreal after three years in Arizona. Max was whistled for 80 PIM last season, a top-20 number. His dad is 3rd on the all-time NHL list with 3,515 PIM in 1,020 games. 

To his credit, Max has scored 67 NHL goals (three this season going into the weekend) in what is now his fifth season, including 18 as a 20-year-old rookie and 28 last year with the Canadiens. 

Tie scored 104 goals in his 16 seasons, reaching double digits only three times. 

Hall of Famer Gordie Howe was a successful and highly qualified calculator of the rationale for assuming the risk of lost time. He accumulated more than 1,600 penalty minutes during an incredible career from 1946 to 1980, when the rules of behavior were a bit less gentlemanly than they are now.

"I'm aware that not everyone approved of how I played, but I don't think any apologies are in order," said Howe, who passed away in 2016 and long ago earned the name "Mr. Hockey." "Early in my career, I decided that it was worth it to do whatever was necessary to earn the extra split-second it takes to make a pass or shoot the puck."

As a corrective measure, the loss of time in the penalty box had no impact on the brawling Howe. The time everyone remembers are the split-seconds.

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