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Life in the penalty box can get sticky Language makes the hair curl


PHILADELPHIA -- This is not a story for anyone with a (obscene adjective) weak heart. It is a story of crime and punishment, of assaults and batterings, of bodily fluids and blood, of aggression and ear-curling language, of knuckles and more blood. It is a story of men who blatantly break rules and pay for their anti-social behavior with time.

In case you couldn't guess, it is a (obscene adjective) hockey story. You didn't know that? You (obscene adjective) moron!

It is a story about a night in the penalty box.

Hockey is the only sport with a penalty box. It is the adult version of being sent to your room. Your sentence can last two, five, even 10 minutes. In basketball, if you punch an opponent, you get thrown out of a game. In baseball -- hello, Roger Clemens -- if you curse the umpire, you get fined, suspended for five games and stuck with a "psycho" label. In football, your team gets penalized for the sins of an individual. That's weak (obscene noun).

The hockey penalty box is a marvelous place. There is something delightfully satisfying and voyeuristic about seeing people at their worst. You should hear the (obscene adjective) way they talk and see how they act. It's a disgrace. But it's entertainment.

Some games, hockey players just skate and score, and the penalty box is empty most of the night. But other games, such as the one here recently between the Philadelphia Flyers and the (obscene adjective) New Jersey Devils, the box is never empty. The two teams are neck and neck in the standings and have more tough guys than scorers.

There are two boxes, actually. In each, there is a metal bench, jugs of water and a timekeeper. In the visitors' penalty box, there is a cooler full of frozen replacement pucks, used when the game puck gets lost in the crowd.

As the players line up in the Spectrum for the national anthem, the referee, Dan Marouelli, along with the linesmen, Gerry Gauthier and Brian Murphy, skates over to the public address announcer.

"How's it going?" asks Marouelli.

"Fine, fine," answers public address announcer Lou Nolan; John Schwering, who keeps track of all penalties, and Frank Waters, who runs the scoreboard.

"All set for Christmas?" the referee asks with a smile.

"Yeah. What about you?" says Schwering.

"Just got to find some stocking stuffers," the referee says, skating off to begin the game.

Those were the last civil words spoken that night.

Before the game can even start, Rick Tocchet of the Flyers and Al Stewart of the (obscene adjective) Devils begin chopping at each other's sticks and mumbling anti-motherhood phrases.

"Ohhh," says Nolan, "it's going to be a long night."

Forty-four seconds into the game, Marouelli blows his whistle signaling the first penalty. Laurie -- that's his name, can you (obscene adjective) believe it? -- Boschman is sent into the box for holding. He glides over the ice toward the box, steps up and waddles to the bench. Once comfortably seated, he blows his nose on the floor, takes a swig of water and spits it out in a gush. Tom Coyle, the penalty timekeeper sitting next to him, checks his shoes for stains and finds none. So far so good.

Boschman, despite his first name, takes his time like a man. He sits silently, keeping the rest of his bodily fluids to himself, until Coyle counts down the last five seconds of his two-minute sentence and sends him on his way.

Then a funny thing. The two teams actually play (obscene adjective) hockey for a while.

But just after the nine-minute mark of the game, the (obscene adjective) Devils' toughest tough guy, Troy Crowder, picks a fight with Flyers defenseman Terry Carkner. Though only a rookie, Crowder has quickly earned a reputation as one of the league's best fighters. He deals in concussions, which, even for a hockey player, can slow you down. But, hey, Carkner is no (obscene adjective) slouch. Crowder slams Carkner a couple of times. Carkner yanks Crowder's jersey over his head, and only then manages to get in a few punches before the three officials risk physical harm to themselves by getting between the players and breaking up the fight.

Crowder is the size of the White House Christmas tree. When he gets into the box, he does not sit. He looks over at Carkner while he puts his jersey back on. He has a clean-shaven face and all his teeth. He also has a message for Carkner:

"Better have a good rest, Terry. It's going to be a long game. I got a lot of energy tonight. Get some rest."

Carkner ignores him. But Keith Acton, who is built like the White House Christmas tree holder and is nicknamed Woody because of how he uses his stick, skates over and looks at Crowder as if he wouldn't touch him with a 10-foot pooper scooper. "How's your hand, Terry?" he asks Carkner. It is Woody's subtle way of trying to tell Crowder he lost the fight.

Eleven seconds later, Bruce Driver of the Devils and Pelle Eklund the Flyers are sent to the box for threatening to perform surgery on each other with their sticks.

Once again, the teams settle down. With just under three minutes left in the first period, Flyers rookie Mike Ricci and the Devils' Jon Morris start pushing each other in front of the Flyers' net. They are separated and sent to the box.

Ricci, the angelic-looking 19-year-old, is flush with anger as he steps into the box. Morris, who wears a face shield for protection, sits quietly. Ricci is too excited to sit. "Take your [obscene adjective] shield off, woman," he yells at Morris.

"Gonna be a two-sheet night," sighs John Schwering, who is fighting writer's cramp. Schwering records each penalty on sheets of official NHL penalty documents and sends them off to the NHL home office. The all-time Flyers record for penalties is 2 1/2 sheets and 380 minutes.

The first period ends, but the players are not finished. Somehow Woody Acton has found himself flat on the ice with Troy Crowder and several other angry (very obscene adjective) Devils standing over him. Crowder appears to be trying to trim Woody's nose hairs with his skate blades. Terry Carkner and the Devils' Lee Norwood leave the scrum and skate across the ice shaking their fists at each other.

The referee and two linesmen are spread too thin. Woody is still pinned to the ice, and despite his weak defensive position, he appears to be insulting Crowder. Both benches are now empty. Everyone is pushing and brandishing his stick. Carkner and Norwood fall to the ice in a hail of punches and are separated.

Finally, the referee gets everyone off the ice. He skates over to the penalty box. Beads of sweat drop off his face onto the official NHL penalty sheets. He is trying to reconstruct the scene of the crime so he can decide who will play the next period and who will pay. But he can't sort it out, too much crime in so little time. Hockey is a fast (obscene adjective) game.

L "Want to go to your room and figure it out?" Lou Nolan asks.

"Yes," the referee replies. "We will go in the room and have a talk and give you the penalties before the next period."

In the background, there are Christmas carols coming over the sound system. The Flyers' wives, dressed in festive clothing and Santa Claus hats, skate onto the ice with the children and throw candy over the protective glass to the fans. Holy (obscene noun). What a sport.

Vince and Dora Falcone are sitting behind the Flyers' penalty box with their friends, John and Eleanor Tate. The Tates have had their seats since 1967 and the Falcones for 12 years. They are experts on the penalty box, having seen and heard all.

"I don't know where such nice young men learn such language," says Dora Falcone.

"That's French," says her husband.

The second period starts with Troy Crowder back in the penalty box for his mistreatment of Woody Acton at the end of the first period. The official charges are roughing, kneeing and a 10-minute misconduct. Acton is found guilty of roughing and misconduct.

"Have a seat," Crowder yells to Acton. Acton just gives him a dirty look and says nothing.

Crowder sits and sits and sits. He sits until there are just 5 minutes, 20 seconds left in the 20-minute period. "Next whistle, Troy," the timekeeper shouts at Crowder, indicating his sentence is over.

"Vacation's over," says Crowder with a smile.

But he's back for more in the beginning of the third period, this time for hooking a Flyer with his stick. In all, Crowder will spend 23 minutes out of a 60-minute hockey game in the box.

The game ends in a draw. Flyers 3, Devils 3. But the (French adjective) Devils beat the Flyers in time served, 51 minutes to 45 minutes.

After the game, Crowder is in the the dressing room. He is friendly. He does not curse when asked about life in the box. The very thought of it brings back fond memories of past misbehavior and indiscretions.

"I spend a lot of time there," he says, "especially here in Philadelphia. But it's not bad. There is always something going, especially throughout juniors.

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