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It has been given a number of names: “the coop”; “on the fence”; and the “sin bin”. But each refers to the game’s penalty box. In the early days it was such a simple location that “on the fence” was sufficient to describe the sidelines where players who had violated the rules were sent to reconsider their misdemeanors. Obviously, as time went on it took the form of an enclosed bench situated along the boards, and equipped with a swinging door. “The coop” was a takeoff from the label often ascribed to jails. No explanation is needed to determine how it came to be known also as the “sin bin”.
Like the Stanley Cup, if this enclosure in hockey arenas were capable of telling candid tales, it would take more than one good-sized volume to chronicle the happenings which went on behind those “closed doors”. This refers, of course, not to the reasons for the rule breakers for being present and accounted for, but the extra-curricular activities which were not scheduled when the guilty party(ies) entered to pay for their transgressions.
Going back to the 1935-36 campaign, those perpetual antagonists, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs were embroiled in one of their hit ‘em, knock ‘em down on ice battles. The Habitants were not having a great year, and on March 12 the Queen City Six downed them 6-3. Tempers flared, and, Toronto’s fire cracker manager, Conn Smythe was in rare form. Marc McNeil of the Montreal Gazette introduced his editorial the next day with: “Smythe was Conny the Clown. He staged one of the better acts to transform what ordinarily would have been a funeral march of the Canadiens out of the playoffs into a symphony of slapstick”. Apparently he sat in the penalty box, ranting and raving and waving his arms. The referees were the recipients of his ire.
But Montreal’s playing manager, Sylvo Mantha was the prime target of his irritation. The latter was serving a penalty when “the Little Major” leaped into the box to harass him. Quickly, referee Mike Rodden made an effort to shoo the uninvited intruder from the coop. He was greeted with an usher’s hat being jammed down onto his head. Meanwhile President Calder jumped into the fray attempting to make peace. While this was going on Toronto coach, Dick Irvin, and Hab’s President Ernie Savard got their two cents worth of whacks in. Needless to say, the 42 minutes in penalties handed out was no great surprise.
Pat Egan was somewhat of a character. Once he was asked to affirm or deny that he had actually picked up a horse. “No!”, he answered. “It was a team of horses”. Built like the proverbial fire plug, the stocky rearguard spent a good deal of time serving time for his shinny sins. One evening, back in 1946, he was assessed a two-minute sentence for tripping. For some reason it seemed that it was an unusually long two minutes. The first real attention given to this mystery was a commotion in the penalty box itself. It looked like Pat was trying to get out and that the timekeeper wouldn’t open the gate. Bill Chadwick was the arbitrator on that occasion and he skated over the see what all the fuss was about.
Indeed he had been in the box well over three minutes, which prompted “the Big Whistle” to start to scold the timekeeper for holding the gate. As it turned out, the opposite of what appeared to be was, in fact, the case. The off-ice official was trying to push Egan out, and sturdy defenseman wouldn’t go. When ordered to return to the ice, he verbally abused Chadwick for spoiling his strategy. He was holding the door shut. He was waiting for the moment when a teammate got possession of the puck and could pass to him for a breakaway chance to score.
William Ezinicki was not nicknamed “Wild Bill” for nothing. Although he stood just 5’10” tall, and weighed only 170 lbs, he was the terror of the ice lanes in his day. Every one of those pounds must have been loaded with TNT, because he knocked opponents flying whenever he body checked them. He would set his sights on them from 40 feet way, then make a beeline for them. Needless to say, his checks were not always viewed as legal and he was a frequent visitor to the “coop”.
In 1949, just prior to his trade from Toronto to Boston, he and his future teammate, Bobby Crawford were chased for high-sticking. Ezinicki was first to the box, and took the spot on the bench so he could be out first when time had expired. Crawford had the same idea in mind and he refused to start his rest until William moved, giving him that advantage. It soon became evident that this was a stalemate, since neither would agree to budge. Spectators got into the act by loudly booing the Leaf winger. But it took referee Hugh McLean to intervene. Mr. Ez finally, and reluctantly, moved along the bench, amidst thunderous applause.
Carl Brewer was well known for being in the midst of controversy. At the NHL league level he caused a stir when he was caught with the palms cut out of his hockey gauntlets, which allowed him to grab hold of opponent’s sweaters as they tried to squeeze by him. He also managed to be at odds with coaches and managers. His style of play meant he was guilty of more than his share of rule violations, and knew the way to the sin bin from memory.
In the early part of the 1960-61 campaign, he had sworn at referee Eddie Powers, and was serving the appropriate punishment for the error of his ways. Unbelievably, because this took place as the period was winding down, he was still there when the horn sounded; and he locked the penalty box door to prevent the minor officials from leaving their posts. He got into a verbal exchange with time keeper Jack Hunt, and, using Hunt’s face for leverage, pushed the startled official away from him. Needless to say, his brashness cost him a stiff fine.
Tommy McVie never was a successful bench boss in the NHL, although he never played at that level. Like so many skaters in the pre-1967 expansion days, he was a career minor leaguer. About the same time as Brewer was making headlines, McVie was earning his keep in the Western Hockey League with the Portland Buckaroos. His antics in this venue prompted Stan Fischler to include him in his book, The Flakes of Winter.
He chose to pinpoint one bizarre incident from about 1963. They were playing in Los Angeles against the Blades. During the frantic action around their opponent’s net, the puck appeared behind the goalie. But referee Lloyd Gilmour insisted that it slipped in under the goal, so he waved it off. The Portland bench boss, Hal Laycoe, was frantic in protesting the decision. McVie was chosen to be the emissary with that protest, and made several trips across the playing surface to relay the gripes to Gilmour. Finally, the sublime became the ridiculous and the crowd was dying laughing at the delay, and the cause of it. By then Gilmour had seen enough. He dashed to the Buckaroo’s bench and ordered McVie into the sin bin. He responded promptly, skating as fast as he could and dove head-first into the box. That only increased the fan’s amusement—but not Gilmour’s. He threw Tommy right out of the game.
While that era saw McVie flying into the penalty bench there was an incident where Phil Esposito flew out the hockey hoosegow. While still in Junior with St. Catherines he was serving his sentence, anxiously counting the seconds when he could be free from his confinement. In fact he didn’t wait for the gate to open, he leaped over the boards. But one skate didn’t cooperate, catching on the top of the dasher. Espo did a header, landing on his wrist, breaking it. Farewell scoring championship and Memorial Cup finals.
Fighting in this venue was common. Unbelievably, the NHL powers that be could not see the obvious, with penalty bench being shared by players from both teams. Stafford Smythe wisely observed: “It’s ridiculous to put two players, who have been trying to knock each other’s heads off, in the same box and expect them to keep the peace!”
Stories about combatants continuing their feuds in this confined space following on-ice dust ups are recorded ad nausum. None other than “Grapes” himself recalls an incident while he was playing for Hershey Bears of the AHL in the late 1950’s. He and a known pugilist, one Ian Cushenan, ended up in this cozy confinement simultaneously. Words led to fisticuffs, and even the policeman assigned to keep them separated failed in his assignment.
But a strange aside brought another element related to this 4 x 7 prison. Larry Ziedel, a looney at the best of times, joined in the fray by tearing the door off the box and throwing it onto the ice. And what prompted this zany hissy fit? He thought the addition to Cherry’s penalty total due to this transgression would put him ahead of Ziedel—and he always wanted to be the leader in P.I.M. on the team.
Perhaps the most celebrated penalty box bout is remembered because it triggered the installation of separate coops for competing teams. It was October 30, 1963, with the Leafs and Canadiens were front and centre. The Hab’s Terry Harper, who was no shrinking violet, and the energetic Bob Pulford of the Leafs got into a row when the latter was highsticked by the Mount Royal City’s rearguard. They fought in front of the Canadiens’ bench and were ushered to serve their sentences. Without any apparent warning, something Harper said enraged the Blue and White’s number 20, and he attacked him with a series of lefts and rights.
President Clarence Campbell was sitting nearby, and the fuss was duly noted. The very next month, those same Leafs took the lead in establishing a separate penalty box for each team. Montreal soon followed suit. Incredibly, it was not until 1965 that the league agreed that it would be advantageous for all arenas to do the same. It was not an edict, but a suggestion.
Not so incredibly, having individual cubicles in which to cool out did not prevent animosity from continuing after combatants were locked up. One of the most infamous incidents of this kind took place in 1975, when the Boston Bruins and Minnesota North Stars tangled. During the height of action Boston’s Dave Forbes and Minnesota’s Henry Boucha went into a corner for the puck. The former admitted he crunched his foe against the dasher and gave him an elbow for good measure. He claimed the elbow was payment for a sucker punch he had received earlier.
While paying for their transgressions Forbes candidly admitted screaming at Boucha from his box, and thinking of how he could “even things up”. Immediately upon their release they tangled again. During the clash the Bruins’ forward’s stick struck Henry in the eye, causing a loss of vision. The story is well known. Forbes was given a 10-game suspension and taken to court, charged with assault. Boucha returned to action but with poor sight in his right eye.
Dave "Tiger" Williams
Dave “Tiger” Williams was no stranger to this forced rest area. His penalty minute total during his career in regular season play was 3966. He added 455 minutes in the playoffs. He was sitting in this favourite private box one night in Maple Leaf Gardens when a brawl involving several other players broke out. Joe Lamantia, the Toronto time keeper was busy pushing buttons on the time keeper’s panel, when Tiger leaned forward and offered to help him. But when he reached for the controls Joe pushed his hand away and told him to “sit down and shut up!’ With a poor-little-me look he said, “If you are going to talk to me like that, Joe, I’m never coming back in here again!”
Perhaps that’s why one of the most remembered quotes attributed to the rambunctious winger sounds so sentimental. “I kind of miss that place. I’ve thought of building one across from my office—just to go and sit there. People say so many nice things when you’re there. I’ve had a warm feeling for days and days. I don’t get them anymore. It’s actually the best place in the whole building. It’s what runs the game. It’s where refs call penalties; where he calls goals. It’s where the coach can’t yell at you. You’re by yourself. It’s the only time in the game when you’re the boss!”
So, there you have it. The sin bin as not as bad a place as it’s usually made out to be.
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