Lessons from the Penalty Box

It’s been awhile. Someone once told me when you hit a writer’s block, you should write about what makes you angry. Well, it’s a bit of a stretch to call me a writer and, even if I was, I haven’t been too angry lately. The winter weather in Minnesota was surprisingly agreeable (big ups to Mother Nature) and the Wild squeaked into the playoffs. The last I remember being notably angry was when my boyfriend ordered peppers as two of his three omelette ingredients because he knows I love to eat his food, but hate peppers.

There’s a number of you who hope I’m about to write that story, and the rest of you will get to the end and wish I had. For that, I apologize. Rather than let my still-festering pepper rage fuel this blog post, I thought I’d reflect on a time when others may have been angry with me — believe it or not, leading the NCAA in penalty minutes doesn’t exactly make you a lot of friends (at least not until you graduate and it becomes a hall of fame fun fact for awkward office ice breakers).

I’ve struggled for quite some time to figure out how to write this, scrapping multiple drafts because I found myself glossing it into an impersonal goofball summary of a situation I owed more honesty and authenticity. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be offended if this makes you laugh. The absurdity is inherently comical and the severity is slight — I’m aware this mole hill is far from a mountain.

I guess part of me worries about coming across as self-important, like I’m bragging about such an insignificant accomplishment (which isn’t to say I’m not incredibly self-important, I’m just not about this). Mostly, I’m afraid to be glaringly honest about the embarrassment I feel about this being my lasting impression after many years of what I would otherwise define as a decently successful amateur (okay, extremely amateur) athletic career.

The dumbest thing about being the 2014–2015 leader in penalty minutes is I didn’t even realize it until the season was over. I was oblivious to all the signs—like when the woman working the penalty box asked if I had gotten a haircut or the opponent’s scorekeeper asked for my phone number. I didn’t even blink after I questioned a call and the referee responded, “It really doesn’t matter. If I hadn’t called you for something now, I would have later.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking “Come on, how bad could it be?” While there’s a small chance it could have been worse, here’s how bad it was…

In one season, I amassed around 90 penalty minutes. I say around because the research yields conflicting evidence — one site shows a generously “low” 86 and another brands me a true villain with 112. Chalk up the inconsistencies to a general disinterest in the accuracy of statistics for Division III athletics (can’t say I blame them). Precision aside, you can pinpoint the game where I racked up a whopping 15 minutes for really doing me in (I’d probably be sorry if it wasn’t against St. Thomas).

Let’s look at some comparative data for context. 90 minutes is the equivalent to sitting out an entire game and a half, meaning I essentially healthy-scratched myself (somebody had to). The next highest offender in the conference clocked in at 39 total minutes — less than half of my feature length film. You’ll find a similar average up and down the rosters of other NCAA teams, men’s and women’s in both divisions. What can I say, it’s lonely at the top.

The assumption that “the more penalties you get, the lazier you are” is what digs at me most. Despite the impression being a penalty minute guru gives, I do believe I worked incredibly hard. A majority of my penalties were for checking, which chalks it up more to me being stupid than lazy and I’ll admit that any day. Now, usually this is where I’d go into an argument on the arbitrary nature of checking regulations in women’s hockey but, the fact of the matter is, I should have known by my senior year it wasn’t going to suddenly make sense.

The problem was I was waiting for the game to change rather than adjusting to it. I believed it was absurd to limit physicality in the women’s game and resisted rules I had been aware of since I was seven years old, afterward having the audacity to play the victim of circumstance card (Hi, I’m Caroline and I’m a stubborn millennial).

I recently asked my former coach if it surprised him to hear I rarely take penalties in the women’s league I now play in, and he replied “not at all.” He and many others knew I didn’t need to be that type of player — I was just too headstrong to see it. Warning: cheesy sports-life analogy coming… Hockey’s like life (I warned you)—it’s not going to magically change just because you think it should. You have to learn to play the game.

And what if you don’t? Somewhere along the line we’ve all been told to “make your own rules” and “never compromise what you believe.” Those are great in theory, but we have to remember that our actions do not exist in a vacuum. Life is a team sport. I’m not saying we should be sheep and totally forgo our principles, letting our paths be dictated by the cunning border collie of authority. What I’m saying is we need to be wise in choosing which convictions to act on and recognize what effect they’ll have on those around us. If the world revolved around all of us, we’d be pretty damn dizzy.

All in all, I don’t regret being a physical player in college. I still wholeheartedly believe women’s hockey needs less bubble wrap. What I regret is the selfishness — my inability to recognize how my actions impacted my teammates. While it’s okay for competitiveness to not be pretty at times, it’s not okay for it to be selfish.

Sitting here today, cry-twerking to “Sorry” by the Biebs, I wonder what my senior year would have been if I’d spent less time thinking about myself and more time learning to play the game as it is. It’s a moment that reminds me — though sports may be of very minimal importance in the grand scheme, damn if they don’t have the power to teach you some of life’s most important lessons.

Give me a shout if you still want to hear my pepper rant.