The penalty box can be the loneliest – or loudest – place in the NHL

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Sometimes fights, like this one between Ryan Hartman and Edmonton’s Eric Gryba, are just the beginning of the war of words. (Getty Images)

Ryan Hartman and Ryan Reaves weren’t even combatants during a nine-man melee in the Blackhawks’ crease last December. Hartman was in a headlock, courtesy of the Blues’ Kyle Brodziak, and Reaves had the Hawks’ Brent Seabrook by the chinstrap. But it was Hartman and Reaves — of course, it was Hartman and Reaves — who found themselves blamed for the whole thing, sent to their respective penalty boxes for matching roughing minors in the third period of a game in St. Louis.

The skirmish was over. The battle had just begun.

“You [expletive] ogre!” Hartman yelled from one box to the other.

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Reaves couldn’t hear. Or, at least, he pretended not to hear.

“You [expletive] ogre! Go back to your swamp! Go back to your swamp, you [expletive] ogre!” Hartman hollered, a smile creeping across his face.

Reaves, who has spent several hundred minutes in penalty boxes and has heard just about everything, could only laugh and spit out some nonsense. Something colorful, to be sure.

“I don’t have planned chirps,” Reaves, now with the Penguins, said a year later. “I’m off the top of my head. I like to keep it new, keep it fresh. I’m talkative in there. I can’t tell you my chirps because they come to me right away. But they’re good. If you had me miked up for a year, you’d have some good material. I don’t know if you’d be able to play a lot of it, though. You’d have to put it on HBO late at night.”

• • •

A standard penalty box is about 8 feet wide, with a simple flat bench on which to sit. It’s surrounded on three sides by glass — to protect penalized players and the penalty-box attendants from stray pucks in front of them and drunken fans behind them. But at many NHL rinks, there’s no glass in between the boxes, just two sets of boards.

So while the penalty box can be the loneliest place in the world, it also can be the most colorful. Sometimes it can get heated, with players barely resisting the urge to hop the boards and go after their opponent. Sometimes it’s a war of words, as with Reaves and Hartman. The Hawks’ Tommy Wingels, however, has his own strategy: “It angers them more when you don’t yell back.”

Every penalty-box attendant in the NHL has stories about players smashing sticks, banging the glass and haranguing opponents and officials at top volume.

But often, it’s strangely cordial in there. Even after the most vicious of bouts. In San Jose last season, the Sharks’ Brenden Dillon got into a fight with the Predators’ Austin Watson. By the time they got to their respective boxes, both were completely gassed. Dillon was wearing a microphone.

“Hey, Wats,” he said. “We’ve got to work on our cardio this summer, huh?”

“I’m dying after like 10 seconds, man,” Watson responded, laughing.

One penalty box attendant in Nashville recalled a brutal fight involving the Predators’ Paul Gaustad. After the fight, the two players sat in their respective boxes. Gaustad’s opponent leaned over and caught his attention.

“You coming to the wedding?”

“Whose?” Gaustad said.

“My sister’s.”

“Your sister’s getting married again?!”

• • •

The guy in the other box isn’t the only person a penalized player has to worry about. In fact, the most vicious stuff usually comes from behind the box, in the form of overzealous fans of the other team, emboldened by a courage-inducing mix of beer and plexiglass.

“I love when there’s a little gap between the glass panes because people always chirp me, and I chirp back,” Reaves said. “There’s always some good ones. We were in New York [recently], and a couple of guys were jawing at me, but they had really thick New York accents, so I had no idea what the hell they were talking about.”

Sometimes it’s just kids. Sometimes it’s adults acting like kids. Sometimes it’s a weirdo in a full-body green spandex unitard in Vancouver, gyrating against the glass. Former Hawks forward Ben Eager got flashed by a woman in Vancouver back when he played for the Sharks. You never know who you’re going to run into.

“One time we were in Florida, and this guy is banging on the glass, and I’m just ignoring it and ignoring it,” Hartman said. “He keeps banging. So I finally turn around and get ready to say something, and just as I’m about to say something nasty, I realize it was my dad’s buddy. ‘Oh, hey, I was just about to yell at you.’ ”

• • •

Most of the time, however, the penalty box is an island. Usually one of despair. Whether it’s a necessary penalty, such as a desperation hook or trip to prevent a goal, or a careless penalty — high-sticking, boarding, unsportsmanlike conduct — the two (or more) minutes in the box can feel like an eternity. Especially in a close game.

Especially when you’re usually one of the team’s penalty-killers.

“I’m usually watching the clock, every second of it,” Wingels said. “It’s not a good feeling. Even if it’s a so-called ‘good’ penalty, it feels much longer than two minutes. I think my heart rate gets more elevated in there than it does on the ice, just watching the guys. You know you put them down and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not the best feeling.”

Some particularly penalty-prone players develop a rapport with the attendants in each city. They’ll ruminate on the game, talk about their families and share stories — especially when the stays extend to four, 10 or even 17 minutes at a time.

But not every player is the chatty sort. The Hawks’ Duncan Keith maintains a Zen-like focus in the box, zoning out all the noise around him and trying to maximize the rest benefit.

“It’s not a great feeling to be in there, but I try to focus on what I need to do,” Keith said. “All that other crap isn’t going to do anything for you.”

Much like goaltender Denis Lemieux in the film “Slap Shot,” who famously said you “feel shame” in the penalty box, former Hawks forward Andrew Desjardins opined that those two minutes are a chance for “reflection.”

And even the mouthiest of players can feel the desperate isolation of being alone in the box, a game hinging on whether or not your teammates can bail you out and spare you from the guilt of a loss, and the ire of a coach.

Because while there’s fun to be had in the box, especially when you have company, there’s nothing worse than trudging back to the bench before your time is up.

“Honestly, there’s just a lot of praying that they don’t score,” Hartman said. “You’re making deals in there. ‘Please don’t let them score, and I’ll go back out there and I’ll never take a penalty for the rest of the year. Just don’t let them score.’ ”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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