This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 14, 2008

It Got Ugly

Canisius and RIT have a rivalry dating back to the 1970s. The two schools, located just 65 miles apart down Interstate 90 in Western New York, have played 56 times so far, the last 10 as Division I programs. Prior to that, the teams were conference foes in the ECAC West and the New York Collegiate Hockey Association.

There has been some bad blood before — a brawl in warm-ups back in the early 1990s, for example — but nothing compared to the melee that occurred between the two teams in the third period of Saturday night’s game at RIT’s Ritter Arena.

I was fortunate (and unfortunate) to be a witness to the event, and here’s one reporter’s recollection, accompanied by links to some videos.

With 7:33 to play and RIT leading 3-1, after a whistle just as Canisius crossed the RIT blue line (reportedly for the Griffs having too many men on the ice, a possible explanation for why there are six Canisius skaters involved in the fight), RIT’s Andrew Favot put a late hit on a Canisius player. There had been plenty of those throughout the game as tempers had continued to escalate.

That simple altercation caused the emotional dam to burst and resulted in a pile-up along the boards with all skaters involved. Canisius’ Carl Hudson threw RIT’s Justin Hofstetter to the ice, and was escorted to the penalty box. Things began to settle down when RIT’s Ricky Walton hit Canisius’ Jason Weeks in the back of the head, re-igniting things and provoking Hudson to come out of the penalty box and rejoin the fray, first attacking Walton and then straddling Favot and repeatedly smashing his helmeted head into the ice.

RIT goaltender Louis Menard took a few steps from his crease when he saw Hudson come flying out of the penalty box, and this somehow convinced Griffs’ goalie Taylor Anderson to join in the fray. He skated into the RIT zone and squared off with Menard.

The absurdity of a goaltender’s brawl brought the curtain down on the affair, as over 200 penalty minutes were assessed, including game disqualifications to Walton, Canisius’ Josh Heidinger, Anderson and Menard. Hudson got a double DQ, meaning a three-game suspension.

Here are some videos of the brawl. This one is from Canisius’ camera and has been edited. It shows the initial incident as well as Walton’s punch and the goalie fight.

This video, taken with a cell phone, shows Hudson leaving the box and at the 28-second mark, as the camera pans left from the goalie fight, we can see him slamming Favot’s head into the ice.

And finally, another cell phone video, capturing most of the same events, but from start to finish.

Neither RIT coach Wayne Wilson nor Canisius coach Dave Smith is saying too much, looking to put the incident behind them. Their immediate comments after the game to USCHO reporter Scott Biggar were:

Smith: “Emotions were running high. Our guys did stick together. There are unwritten rules of fighting. When a sucker punch reignites a dead fight, guys have to stand up to that.”

Wilson: “They wanted it to be a rivalry, and I guess it is a rivalry. They had a guy jump off the bench, another leave the penalty box, the goalie came all the way down the ice, and a player hitting our guy with his helmet. We’re going to defend ourselves.”

When I talked with Atlantic Hockey Commissioner Bob DeGregorio on Monday, he was still waiting to see the various tapes from the game. “Based on the reports I have received, there will be additional penalties assessed,” he said. “We’ll look at all the videos and reports, and issue a statement at the appropriate time.”

The appropriate time was Wednesday night, when it was announced by the league that “additional games” were assessed to Anderson, Hudson, Walton and Menard, plus Canisius’ Phil Rauch and Jason Weeks, and RIT’s Tyler Mazzei and Stephen Burns.

While the release was vague in terms of how many games each player had been assessed, league officials have gone on the record to say that Hudson and Walton have been suspended for the remainder of the regular season. Anderson and Menard got an additional game, and Rauch, Weeks, Mazzei and Burns got one game each. Most of the new players on the suspension list can be seen in the various videos throwing punches, so their penalties seem fair. The player that got the short end of the stick in my opinion is Menard, who did not instigate any hostilities and seemed to be only defending himself.

“Right now we’re focused on the game (Saturday) against Niagara,” said Wilson. “They’re playing well right now and it’s a chance for us to finish our non-conference schedule with a.500 record, which would be another step for our program.”

Niagara will be the fourth ranked team the Tigers have played this season. They’re 2-1 with wins over Cornell and Minnesota and a loss to Boston College.

While it may not seem ideal to play a non-conference game this late in the season, Wilson says there are positives.

“It worked out for both teams that we both had this weekend open,” he said. “It’s a chance to maybe develop another rivalry with a team that’s close by.”

RIT playing out of conference allows teams with games in hand to catch up and in some cases pass the Tigers, who have a tenuous hold on first place. Four teams are within striking distance and two can pass RIT this weekend.

“Anything can happen,” said Wilson. “We’re in first right now, and we’d like to stay there. But last year that was our only goal because that’s all we could play for. This year we have other goals, with the major one getting to the NCAA tournament and to do that you have to win the playoffs. Anything can happen there no matter where you finished in the regular season. Look at Air Force last year.”

Canisius is also looking to put the events of last Friday behind them, but at the same time not look too far ahead.

“We made the mistake earlier in the season of looking at the standings,” said Smith, whose team is five points out of a home-ice spot with six games left to play. “We’re best when we focus on the short term. Right now we want to play a strong first period on Saturday and take things from there.”

Player of the Week for February 11, 2008
Tom Dickhudt — Bentley

The Falcons got swept for the first time this season, but Dickhudt did all he could to prevent it, getting six points on the weekend with a goal and five assists.

Goaltender of the Week for February 11, 2008:
Josh Kassel — Army

This is getting old. Kassel wins the award for the third week in a row. The junior stopped 56 of 57 shots to help the Black Knights to a three point weekend against Holy Cross.

Rookie of the Week for February 11, 2008:
Adam Roy — Holy Cross

The other goalie in the Army-Holy Cross weekend had a pair of pretty good outings himself. Roy made 63 saves on of 66 shots to help the Crusaders salvage a point against the Black Knights.

On the Rebound

A 3-0 loss to Canisius on January 18 was Army’s fifth loss in a row. The Black Knights had managed just one win in their previous 11 games, and things looked bleak with another game against the Griffins and then a huge series with Air Force, with both games to be nationally televised.

Junior goaltender Josh Kassel had taken the loss in that game, and with competition fierce between himself, freshman Jay Clark and newly-eligible sophomore Joey Spracklen, Kassel feared the worst.

“I kind of had a feeling I wasn’t going to start after giving up three goals and losing the game,” he said. “But I thought I played pretty well and made some big saves.”

Kassel asked Army coach Brian Riley for another start, looking to play well against Canisius and earn the right to face Air Force the next weekend.

“(Kassel) wanted another shot,” said Riley. “He knew he pretty much had to win that game to play against Air Force.”

Kassel rose to the occasion, stopping 22 of 23 shots as Army won, 2-1. The Black Knights went on to sweep Air Force the nest weekend, both by 2-1 scores, and are undefeated in their last seven games, with Kassel allowing only five goals over that span. Army has vaulted into a tie for second place, just a point behind RIT with two games in hand.

“We weren’t playing that bad, but he had nothing to show for it,” said Riley. “The difference was we started getting some bounces.”

“We were letting in fluky goals — weird bounces, pucks going in off of shin pads,” said Kassel. “Once we won that game, guys started to settle down and were able to do their thing.”

Kassel has won the AHA Goaltender of the Week Award three times in a row, but Riley says all his players can take pride in their recent success.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “It starts with Josh and then works out from there. We’re not a team that’s going to score a lot of goals. We have to be strong in our own zone.”

Army faces AIC this weekend. The Yellow Jackets have already won more games than they did all of last season, and Riley says his team needs to keep its focus, with a chance to be in first place come Saturday night.

“AIC is looking at this weekend saying, ‘Hey, we still have a shot at home ice,'” said Riley. “They’re playing really well right now. I keep saying this to our guys but it’s true: every game you play in the second half of the season is the biggest one of the year so far.”

Around the League

AIC: The Yellow Jackets swept Bentley for the first time since joining the MAAC/Atlantic Hockey. AIC’s win on Saturday was its eighth of the season, surpassing last year’s win total, with at least eight more games to play.

Connecticut: It looks like the injury suffered by goaltender Beau Erickson on Friday will end his season. Even so, he had 801 saves, second-best in the Division I era at UConn.

Sacred Heart: The Pioneers always seem to have trouble with in-state rival UConn, but not this season. Sacred Heart swept the season series from the Huskies for the first time ever.