When professional hockey was making its first steps into Britain in the 1980s, one local operator, strapped for the official parlance, began calling the penalty box “the bin of woe.”
Leave it to the English to grasp the concept so viscerally. No wonder they invented the language.
In real life, isolation is a consequence of a lapse in judgment. A wayward colt is brutally excised from the herd by the boss mare. A disobedient child is put in the corner.
The incarceration model is alive and well in Canada’s national game. Hockey is the only major sport that comes with its own built-in jail.
Once lost in the jumble of special teams, the penalty kill is doing a star turn in the American Hockey League playoffs. The top penalty killing team in the post season? That would be your Toronto Marlies, owners of an astonishing 95.1 per cent kill rate. The Marlies have surrendered three power play goals and scored two shorthanded this post-season. Put another way, they are minus-1 when they spot the team another player.
The second best penalty-killing team? Their opponents in the Calder Cup final: the Norfolk Admirals (93.6 per cent).
According to the PowerScout statistical service, penalty killing is four times more important than the power play in determining victory.
Here is why defensive hockey wins championships. It’s easier to prevent goals than score them. The more you prevent, the less you have to score. That’s why when given a choice, 100 coaches out of 100 prefer a better penalty kill.
“For me if the other team doesn’t score any goals you have a pretty good chance of winning the game,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, perhaps understating his case just a tad.
But maybe we are looking at the wrong end of the question.
Maybe good teams aren’t good because they kill penalties but instead because they develop through killing penalties.
Killing penalties is the ultimate team-building exercise. Clubs become tighter through penalty killing and that cohesiveness seeps into other elements of the game.
It goes back to that moment in the bin of woe. A penalized player is literally separated from his teammates. The downhearted skate from the box to the bench makes irresistible television. There is no more indictable moment than the walk of shame.
A penalty killer takes a teammate off the hook. He works harder to paper over a comrade’s mistake. Is it any wonder that tough guys and the penalty killers are known as “character guys,” the selfless soldiers?
“It’s almost like a rallying cry for your bench a lot of the times,” Eakins said. “They’ve got more guys on the ice than they do. You kill off the penalty and everyone’s really excited. If you kill off a five-on-three, it’s the same as scoring a goal yourself. But if your power play scores, well, you’re supposed to score, you have the extra guy. ”
Penalty killing is an act of absolution. Someone steps in to wipe away another’s mistake. Like the English hockey officials, the writers of hockey’s most famous movie instinctively understood the loneliness of the penalty box.
“It’s that old Slap Shot line: “You’re sitting in the box and you’re feeling shame,’” Eakins said.
“We’ve all been that guy in the box,” said the Marlies fierce-penalty killer Will Acton. “If you take a stupid penalty or an unfortunate one, you feel kind of vulnerable. Especially in the playoffs you don’t want to be that guy who gets scored on.”
Grunts mix with skill players on the penalty kill. Less heralded players, Acton, Greg Scott and Mark Fraser see as much action as Nicolas Deschamps and Jake Gardiner with the team down a man. The power play is for the high-priced help.
Penalty killing grows gratitude and loyalty. It eliminates what amounts to class distinctions based on salary and desegregates the roster. It invests responsibility with the group to absolve the individual.
Maybe the greatest evidence of the importance of the penalty kill is that its primacy is so universally accepted.
“It’s a mutual respect and understanding,” Acton said. “You know the guy has bailed you out. You’re going to go that much harder the next shift. That’s the team dynamic. It doesn’t need to be said. Everyone understands.”