Kevin Fukala arrived in Augusta last week looking for two things: a church and a fight.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound forward came from the Central Hockey League, where he was known as an enforcer. He confirmed his role on the first faceoff of his first shift in Augusta last Friday by dropping the gloves and pummeling Huntsville forward Brett Needham. The fight, which started two minutes into the game, didn't last long and ended with Needham picking himself up off the ice as Fukala skated to the penalty box with a five-minute major and a standing ovation.
Less than an hour earlier, Fukala had already prepared for the moment in a peculiar way.
"I actually pray for my other combatant," he said. "Each team has a fighter, and I actually pray for both of us, because it's a hard job for both of us."
Fukala's willingness to fight any and all challengers on the ice is matched only by his willingness to talk about his Christianity off the ice. It doesn't take much to trigger his aggressiveness in a game. His 24 penalty minutes in two games last weekend came for fighting, boarding, instigating and being an aggressor, which resulted in a game misconduct.
But the 25-year-old rookie claims an identity far beyond a heavy fist and an eye-catching mohawk.
"It's definitely a role that I don't like to handle with pride," he said. "It's just a job. It's not who I am off the ice."
Fukala is a soft-spoken man of faith who spent last summer as an on-ice instructor with Hockey Ministries International after wrapping up a four-year college career at Central Oklahoma. He said he scored 75 goals in his first two seasons of hockey before hitting a growth spurt that resulted in a steady dose of encouragement from coaches to embrace the more physical side of the game.
Multiple YouTube videos with highlight fights have made the young forward a bit of an Internet star in the minor league hockey community. His impact with the RiverHawks was felt immediately.
"I was joking around with him a little bit, calling him my insurance policy," line mate Aaron McGill said. "He's a great team guy. It's nice to have another guy that'll stick up for you."
Though they lost both games last weekend, the RiverHawks put forth a more physical effort that pleased coach Brad Ralph and should give the team momentum as they prepare for a pair of weekend home games starting tonight at 7:30 p.m. against the Columbus Cottonmouths at James Brown Arena.
"Having a guy like that on your team, not only does it provide energy to the other players, but it gives them more confidence and more room on the ice," Ralph said after Friday's game. "It was exciting hockey. There's a lot of energy in the arena. If you're a fan, you can't ask for much more out of a hockey game."
A little more than 1,000 fans saw the RiverHawks debut a more physical style of play Friday night. After Fukala's performance, more than 2,000 showed up for Saturday's game. The rookie gave a repeat effort, going after a Knoxville player who, Fukala said, deserved some attention after the Ice Bears erased a 2-0 deficit late in the first period.
"You take a run at one of my teammates, I'm coming," Fukala said. "When my coach says my name on the bench in a situation like that, I know what my job is. I was out there for a reason -- to try to get something stirred up."
Fukala said he doesn't leave his religion in the locker room when a game starts. Even in fighting, his motivation remains the same.
"I would say that my job as an enforcer, you may not think a lot of Christians would do that job, but God says he's our strength and our shield and when we trust him he helps us. He also says to be strong and courageous," he said. "The biggest thing is, he wants us to do our job 100 percent for him and not for man. When I hit that ice, I'm doing it all for him. He's the reason why I'm here. He's the reason why I'm breathing. I owe it all to him."
Fukala isn't alone in such a philosophy. Former NHL enforcer Stu Grimson, whose aggressive play and willingness to fight earned him the nickname "The Grim Reaper," spent more than a decade at hockey's highest level preaching a similar message of Christianity.
Though Fukala's ultimate goal in hockey is to rise to levels beyond the Southern Professional Hockey League, he said he's ready to be Augusta's fighter this season.
"You can expect to see more of it, and I think this weekend's games should be interesting," he said. "We need to walk out of here with four points."