Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lessons from the Penalty Box

With the end of this year's abbreviated National Hockey League season fast approaching, fans across North America are looking to the rink. Although the NHL has a smaller fan base compared to Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association, these fans are some of the most loyal and engaged in all of sports. Even I, though not a dedicated hockey buff, will watch my favorite NHL team in action, when I get the chance. As I watched a game the other night, it struck me how we could learn some life lessons from this fine sport.

Now some would argue absolutely nothing good can come from hockey: a fiercely aggressive sport with a real knack for violence. In fact, so prevalent are the game's displays of open hostilities, it has given rise to a fairly oft-used expression, which captures the game's propensity for settling scores with one's fists: "I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out."

We've probably all seen violence in major league sports: the bench-clearing brouhaha that erupts after a batter's been tagged by a gunning pitcher, the NFL's late hits and cheap shots, and the flagrant fouls of the NBA are all examples of tempers flaring, passions rising, and a distinct lack of self-control. Of course, violence in the NHL results for the same reasons. Interestingly though, the consequences for the offending player's team in the NHL are different than other sports. If a baseball, football or basketball player is penalized, that player stays in the game, and the teams remain evenly matched. On the other hand, hockey players penalized for any reason, including violence, serve their time in the penalty box, off the ice. While there, his team may not replace him, thus giving that team a disadvantage in the number of men on the ice. And, of course, there are real and immediate game consequences when playing a man down. The individual pays for his mistake, and the team suffers the consequences.

To me this parallels life in many ways: my negative actions may well have consequences beyond me. When I am caustic or embittered or show aggressive tendencies at home in front of my family -- yelling at the neighbor, cussing at the dog, reading the "riot act" to some business person on the phone -- the family is upset, i.e. they suffer. I need to remember my actions impact more than just me. If I've put myself in the penalty box -- if my actions are detrimental to the family unit and our ability to thrive together is hindered by my unseemly behavior -- we all lose big time.

And one more thing: have you ever paid much attention to the guy sitting in the penalty box? He's not only publicly shamed for his conduct, he also has to deal with the opposing team's unruly fans, rattling the glass behind him, jeering and egging him on.

I guess the only thing really nice about sitting in the penalty box is you've got a front-row seat to watch the other team score.

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