- The penalty box is much more than a temporary jail. It is a glass case of emotion, a fun hangout spot, an oddly therapeutic space—at least when fans aren’t banging on the glass.
PHILADELPHIA — Sitting down for breakfast in the Wells Fargo Center media room, Augie Conte signs a cross and clasps his hands. It’s Easter morning, a day for repenting sins, fitting since Conte will serve as penalty timekeeper for Bruins-Flyers in two hours. His regular gig involves training business folk to use solar energy, but Conte has also moonlighted as an NHL off-ice official for nearly three decades, including the past dozen years as the sin bin supervisor. He has soft eyes and steely hair and sunny charm, like Mr. Rogers wearing a league-branded sweater. One imagines this helps soothe hyper-angry hockey players who storm into his office.
“Our job is to get them out,” he says.
On-time departures are indeed critical, but Conte and his colleagues must manage a battery of other tasks. The home penalty box attendant doubles as the arena technician coordinator (ATC), handing referees tablet screens for video replay. The visiting penalty box attendant oversees a freezer full of spare pucks, opening the door and passing them to linesmen during stoppages in play. Before each game, Conte visits the officiating room and delivers a list of major penalties that have been committed this season—instigators, game misconducts, etc.—so they are reminded which miscreants are skating that day. He calls this The Bad Boys Sheet.
“We’re the supporting staff behind the orchestra,” Conte says. “We’re there for them.”
Bad boys abound in this line of work, but the penalty box is much more than temporary jail. (Or as Dani Probert, widow of the late Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert, says, “hockey timeout.”) It is a glass case of emotion, a fun hangout spot, an oddly therapeutic space—at least when fans aren’t banging on the glass. The best stories were catalogued in this week’s SI, from Dallas’s Antoine Roussel scarfing down chocolate chip cookies to the infamous Tie Domi incident, which happened here in Philly while Conte watched upstairs. But here are five more items of bonus content because, like Roussel says, “You’ve got to enjoy every moment in that place.”
Roussel is far from the only sweet-toothed skater to find sustenance during a long sentence. Florida Panthers tough guy Micheal Haley, whose 22 fighting majors led the NHL this season, recalls receiving bags of homemade licorice during his minor-league days with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Nashville’s Scott Hartnell, second on the active PIMs list behind Zdeno Chara, once bummed some Skittles and M&Ms in Buffalo.
When he played overseas in England, former Blues fourth-line Cam Janssen always relished what awaited him when the door swung open. “I don’t care how bloody or mad I was,” he says. “This woman would always put a smile on my face with gummy bears, Starburst, all kinds of stuff. I’d stuff them in my pants and bring them over to the bench and save them for later.”
Like a fast-food drive-thru, cracks in the glass also provide opportunities to sneak some grub. Domi remembers John Kordic shoveling fistfuls of popcorn. Roussel recalls declining a burger from a fan. “I’ve got offered beer and I was very close to taking it a few times,” retired forward Shawn Thornton says. “I would’ve have to be very late in my career and very late in the game.”
Then there is Blake Coleman, who placed an order for pickle juice in the Devils’ season opener. He has drank the stuff since his junior year at Miami (Ohio) University, swearing that the sodium helps prevent chronic cramps. And so when Coleman took a slashing minor midway through the third period against Colorado on Oct. 7, teammate Brian Gibbons brought over an entire jar of dill during a television timeout. The penalty box attendant scrunched his face, disgusted, as Coleman started chugging. And when the doors opened after his time was served?
“I think I just left it behind,” he says. “Let them have lunch if they wanted, or dinner. A little snack.”
The skate to the penalty box is a shameful enough experience, without the ignominity of entering the wrong one. Three months ago, Canadiens defenseman Karl Alzner returned to Washington’s Capital One Arena for the first time after spending eight-plus seasons there. Late in the first period, he was whistled for slashing and headed off.
“And so I was chirping [former teammate Andre Burakovsky], then chirping the ref, and I just lost track of where I was,” Alzner says. “Muscle memory took over. Then I looked over and I saw … I don’t remember what her name is, but the lady with the red hair in the home box. And she looked at me and pointed to the other one.
“I’ve never even looked over at the visitors box before. [Alex Ovechkin] skated by me after laughing, saying that I don’t play there anymore. It’s not one that bugged me too much when it was over. I’m sure it’s happened many, many times before.”
At least Alzner was spared from actually entering the home box, which is what happened to ex-Senators forward David Legwand in Nashville early into the 2014-15 season. “At that point, you’ve got to have a good chuckle about it," he says. “What can you do? Being there for so long, you know the guys in the box, and they just laugh.”
On an overcast March afternoon in midtown Manhattan, the NHL’s all-time fights leader (333) settles into a hotel restaurant booth and rests his beefy knuckles on the table. Domi has come here to discuss that time a bricklayer named Chris Falcone crashed through the penalty box glass, furious that Domi had spritzed the front row of fans with blue Gatorade, but first he has another sin bin story to tell.
“People ask me, have you ever fought a fan before?” he says. “I fought a mascot when I 14 years old.” He was playing junior B hockey in Ontario then, fielding a barrage of insults from some dude dressed as a chicken. “He’s hitting the glass, making all the fans laugh,” Domi says. “And I actually just beat up somebody, so I said to him, ‘You’re next.’ Went to the dressing room after the game was over. I took my skates off. I climbed back upstairs and there was the chicken waiting for me. And I beat the s— out of the chicken. He was 6-foot-6. He had the head off, but everything else on. Beat the s— out of him.
“So then I was in the back of a cop car with my hockey gear on and the chicken in the front. The cop said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we really can do about this.’ It wasn’t like I looked for it. All game he was harassing me. Cop let me go. Teammates are waiting. I had to drive two hours in my equipment, because I went right on the bus.”
A businessman with several development ventures now, Domi often travels to see his son, Max, play for the Arizona Coyotes. Sometimes he runs into the same penalty box attendants who worked during his NHL career. “They all tell me Max is respectful to them,” Domi says proudly.
In 2009, two journalism students from Vancouver named Ryan “Sully” Sullivan and Adam “Force” Forsythe were interning with a TSN television station in Toronto, cutting tape and performing grunt work, when genius struck. Inspired by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, they decided to purchase skintight, neon-green body suits and sit near the visiting penalty box at Rogers Arena, where a roofing company run by Sullivan’s father keeps season tickets. Pretty soon they were internationally famous, conducting limb-flailing gyrations and creative hijinx.
“Some guys ended up spraying us with water,” Sullivan says. “Guys would chirp back at us. A few guys had some choice words. We’d totally get in their head of it and mess around. Everyone loves home-ice advantage, but when your home-ice advantage can actually get in the head of an opposing player, then it becomes something even more than that. It became this really cool novelty that no one had going for them.”
Among Sullivan’s favorite interactions: Donning witch noses to mimic Milan Lucic’s lengthy schnoz, unfurling a giant Santa’s Naughty List around Christmastime, sporting Hugh Hefner-style smoking jackets and pipes, and ribbing a noted pest about an old flame during the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.
“We went to the Western Conference semis in Nashville when the Canucks were playing the Preds,” Sullivan says. “We were at the bar one night and Force is hitting it off with this lady who turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of Brad Marchand. A few weeks later, we were in the finals and Marchand comes into the box and Force leans in and starts talking about how nice a girl she is, he had a great time dancing with her, Marchand leans with the water bottle and just soaks us.”
The schtick lasted for six years, four or five games each season so it wouldn’t wear thin. They made charity appearances, raised money, started a company called Green Men Media. “You can only wear spandex for so long,” Sullivan says. That’s what it comes down to. But just because we retired, doesn’t mean we’re not going to bring it back again, one day, maybe.”
And now, a brief list of memories from some of hockey history’s most frequent visitors …
Tim Hunter, eighth all-time, 3,146 career penalty minutes: “We were having a scrimmage and this young guy, big kid, was trying to make the team and jumps me. He’s like ‘F—- you,’ no respect. I was happy to fight him, if we did it straight up. There were one-minute penalties and no officials in the penalty box. So I go in and I’m like, I can let myself out. I’m going to do it about four seconds early. He opens the gate, steps out and I’m standing in front of the box and I drill him back in. The referee never saw it. There has to be police who lets you out in the right manner at the right time. Otherwise, you know how it’s going to go.”
Golden Knights winger Ryan Reaves: “I was in the box with someone else in junior. We were playing playoffs. Someone threw a beer at him. I think it came from pretty high up. I think it was half-empty, one of those aluminium cans. He was chirping at the crowd, saw it coming and grabbed it. he caught it and took a sip and yelled, ‘NEXT TIME MAKE IT A BUD LIGHT!’”
Brad May, 2,248 career PIMs, including a rookie record 309 in ‘91-92: “I was playing for the Anaheim Ducks, I think during the ‘07-08 season. I fought Chris Barch four times from the Dallas Stars. And we wanted to be the best fight combination of the year on hockeyfights.com. The last one was epic, right around Easter, like late March. So we get to the penalty box and I’m dead, bent over, trying to catch my breath, heavy arms. He’s jumping up and down on his side and he’s screaming, hitting the glass, going, “May Day! May Day! We’re No. 1!” We just sat there, beat the piss out of each other for the last minute and a half, and we’re celebrating in the penalty box because we’re both alive. It was so fun. I didn’t know the guy at the time. It’d be like we were best friends at that moment going forward.”
Rob Ray, sixth all-time, 3,207 PIMs: “You can do whatever you want in there. I remember getting in a fight one night and sitting in a penalty box they brought me a needle and thread and I fixed my own jersey. They came over, the jersey was all ripped down in the front, and I didn’t want to give it to the trainer. I sat there, sewed it up.”
Thornton: “I was out pretty late one night in St. John’s (Newfoundland) with the Maple Leafs farm team, drinking with one of the refs. The next day I got into a fight with a guy I didn’t like. We were going back and forth in the box. I tried to climb over, threw an ice bag and water bottle at the guy. The ref came over to settle me down. He goes, ‘Are you hungover and want to get the hell out of here?’ How’d you know? He made a big scene for me and kicked me out as a favor.
“In the minors I tried to fight Dave “Moose” Morissette left-handed, which was not a good idea. There was no HockeyFights.com then, no video on guys. You just figured it out. He beat the hell out of me. We were sitting in the box and he said, ‘What are you doing fighting left-handed? Next time just fight me right-handed.’ I’m ambidextrous. I just fight whichever wasn’t sore. He was a righty, saying I was taller, could take advantage of my reach. Very useful advice for me, especially younger in my career.”
The pitch was to sit in the penalty box. Hang out at the scorer’s table, watch Bruins-Flyers with the off-ice officials, write about life inside. Alas, the NHL rejected this request, evidently believing this would open Pandora’s penalty box on private conversations. So we purchased a second-row ticket (cost: $234.50) instead.
A week until the regular season ends, both teams bound for the Stanley Cup playoffs after missing berths in ’16-17, Conte predicts that everyone will be on their best behavior. “Not going to be a melee today,” he says, and indeed neither the Bruins nor Flyers commit any first-period penalties. This leaves Conte to his usual battery of other tasks—communicating with the commercial coordinator during TV timeouts, logging infractions on quad-color carbon paper, phoning goals to the press box booth using the penalty box’s landline, clicking the backup stopwatch around his neck in case the scoreboard malfunctions.
The setup has gotten stricter since the Domi incident, which Conte and his peers in Philadelphia remember well. When Bruins defenseman Torey Krug is whistled for slashing midway through the second period, the first infraction of the game, security guard rises beside the box and stands with his arms crossed, scolding fans who bang the glass. He also reminds them that chants of "ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE!" aren't considered kosher when delivered solo. “Just do it as a group,” he advises.
A few minutes later, Marchand enters for tripping. Cell phones raise, hoping to capture a moment of pestilence. A volley of barbs hails through the boards:
“You suck, March!”
“Hey Brad, who won the Super Bowl?”
“Your mother is probably a nice woman but you’re a loser!”
Normally Marchand isn’t afraid to chirp back at fans, possessing a sharp wit that matches his cutting playing style, but this time he stares dead ahead, eyes darting as Boston goes on the penalty kill. He unbuckles his helmet, removes his gloves, getting comfortable for the quick stay. He cracks a joke, something about how much time remains until his release, and the penalty box attendant winks back. He slugs some water and spits.
“It’s a fun little spot to me,” Marchand says later. “The odd time you get some people chirping a little bit, and I’m not scared to throw the chirp back. Sometimes you catch them off-guard and they enjoy it as well. They’re normally pretty ruthless and vulgar. There’s not many I’ve heard that are PG rated. But there are some good ones nowadays. The guys in Vancouver? The Green Men guys? You don’t see many like that anymore.”