1. Archive


It was nice to see a friendly face in such hostile territory, or so Gordie Dwyer thought.

The Lightning forward, playing at the time for the IHL's Detroit Vipers, was sent to the penalty box in Chicago during a game against the Wolves; a clear villain in an atmosphere where good and evil are designated by the color of a jersey.

Still, Dwyer was heartened when fans near the box chanted his name and he saw a 3-year-old boy smiling and waving. Dwyer began to smile back when the child, in an impressive display of sportsmanship and parenting, gave Dwyer the finger.

"I laughed," Dwyer said. "You don't get angry when you see that kind of stuff. It was pretty funny."

The penalty box is hockey's theater of the absurd, where players banished for either two minutes, five or 10, depending on their transgressions, find a confessional to reflect on their sins or a cauldron to further stoke their emotions.

Some players shoot the breeze with the penalty box official. Others stare at the floor. Some flirt with female fans, some with the anger that got them there in the first place.

Some, like Dwyer, find the humor in the situation.

"There's a guy in Washington that sits right next to the penalty box and he's pretty loud," Dwyer said. "He tears you up. I don't know where he gets his stuff, but he knows everything about you _ where you played in the minors, who you played for, how long you've been up, all kinds of different things.

"It's actually pretty funny."

You know what else is funny? The movie Slap Shot was right. Players sent to the penalty box do feel shame, especially when the penalty is a dumb one or they failed to take an opponent with them.

"It's probably two of the longest minutes you'll spend in your hockey career, that's for sure," Sabres center Chris Gratton said. "You just pray the other team doesn't score a goal. I try to watch the guys on the ice. Maybe I'll learn something."

How about looking at the coach?

"If the penalty is bad, you never want to look at the coach," he said. "I just try to wish the time away as soon as I can."

Players try not to interact with fans, especially in the opposition's barn, because emotions on both sides can escalate rapidly. But sometimes it can't be helped, and sometimes it's not so bad.

Senators tough guy Andre Roy was serving a five-minute major this season after a fight with Columbus' Jamie Pushor when two women in their late 30s struck up a conversation with him through the gaps in the Plexiglas.

"For five minutes in there I barely watched the game," Roy said. "They were really cute. We were having conversations the whole time, and they were like, "You're really cute too.'

"I went back again for a two-minute penalty, and they were really glad I was back."

Dwyer thought he was getting an offer for a beer while playing a junior game in Granby, Quebec.

"He had a big glass of beer in his hands and he says, "Here, Dwyer, here,' " he said. "I was like, "Yeah,' you know, joking around. "I'll take it after the game.' He goes, "Here, here,' and he throws it right on me and drops it in my face."

It would be tough for something like that to happen in the NHL. Security is tight and the penalty boxes are enclosed by glass that, by NHL rule, must extend at least 5 feet above the boards.

NHL rules also say each penalty box should be big enough to hold five players and an official.

The official's main purpose is to keep track of penalty time and open the door to let the players out. But he also provides the on-ice officials with new pucks when those in the game are lost to the crowd.

There are also some unofficial duties such as being a travel guide for visiting players and a message bearer. Sometimes they lend a sympathetic ear.

Chuck Fontana, a penalty box official at the Ice Palace, said one player even wanted him to stand on his stick blade to straighten it out and avoid a penalty for an illegal stick.

"He had just received a penalty for it," Fontana said. "I guess the other stick they brought out, he was worried about where that was. He asked me to stand on it. I didn't."

Fontana, 62, has worked Lightning games since they were played at the fairgrounds. The Merritt Island resident drives 240 miles round trip on game days. He wouldn't miss it.

"Sometimes its humorous," he said. "I'll get notes passed to me from the ladies who want to talk to the players. I tell them I can't do that."

Fontana said he did set up a referee with an old girlfriend, who approached Fontana and asked him to arrange the reunion. Most of his interaction, though, is with the players.

"Some will come in and ask about the penalty, did I see it, and then try to get me on their side or at least convinced of the issue," Fontana said.

"I'm careful. If somebody is coming in and they're just really upset, I give them all the room they need. Normally, they'll settle down relatively soon."

Repeat offenders get a friendly greeting.

"I'll say things like, "Back again?' Most of them take it with a laugh," Fontana said. "On the visitors' side you always have the opportunity, particularly in the middle of winter, to talk about the weather. They're normally impressed they get a chance to play golf in the middle of the season. You normally get some local interest questions."

It's not always fun and games. Sometimes things go very, very wrong in penalty boxes.

When Lightning general manager Rick Dudley played for the AHL's Cincinnati Swords in the early '70s, the penalty boxes in the home arena were so crude, all that separated them was a uniformed cop.

After one spirited brawl, Dudley and his opponent wouldn't cool down.

"We decided to carry it on," Dudley said. "This poor old policeman tried to jump in the way while we were throwing 'em, and I nailed him and knocked him out. He refused to work another hockey game."

That cop would have freaked out if he had seen Dudley, playing for Cincinnati of the old WHA, scaling the penalty box glass in Birmingham to get at an opponent.

The scene made such an impression on Birmingham fans, they taunted Dudley during subsequent visits with a Spiderman puppet wearing his No. 9.

"Every time I went into Birmingham, they had me hung in effigy," Dudley said.

Such scenes are almost non-existent today, mainly because penalty boxes are so insulated and because there would be severe penalties.

Players still communicate from box to box. Some tap the glass with their sticks. Nashville's Scott Walker once stuck his tongue out at San Jose's Brian Marchment.

One thing Tampa Bay's Dwyer doesn't recommend is throwing something.

"You start throwing things," Dwyer said, "and you're bound to stay in there a little longer."