Two teams fighting for the top spot in the Southern Professional Hockey League standings play tonight at James Brown Arena, where the first-place Augusta RiverHawks face the second-place Knoxville Ice Bears.
Don’t expect the standings to be the only thing the two teams will fight over.
“There was that stuff that happened last year,” Augusta head coach Brad Ralph said. “And we’re 1 and 2 in the standings, so I think it’s a natural rivalry.”
Though front office executives from Augusta and the league office initially tried to hype rivalries with other nearby SPHL teams in Fayetteville, N.C. and Columbus, Ga., the RiverHawks and Ice Bears have developed a healthy love-hate relationship since the SPHL came to Augusta last season.
In their 13 meetings, the RiverHawks have won seven. They played each other four times within the first two weeks of the 2010-11 season and each won two, including Augusta’s dramatic overtime win in Knoxville, Tenn., on Nov. 5.
But the close games are only half the story. Aside from nearly even wins and losses, the two teams haven’t gotten along on the ice.
Augusta forward Aaron McGill shattered the jaw of Ice Bears defenseman Mark Van Vliet during a February game in Knoxville that saw five ejections. The incident ended the season for both players. Van Vliet had season-ending surgery, while the league suspended McGill for the rest of the season after Knoxville coach Mike Craigen called for it in postgame comments.
“Mark Van Vliet is out for the season from the looks of it and I think Aaron McGill should be out for the season as well, and if he’s not, I think it’s an injustice,” Craigen told the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Knoxville and Augusta played two more games last season without major incident and finished first and second in team penalty minutes.
Ralph said he realizes that his players didn’t make many friends among some teams in the league last season.
“That was a bit of our reputation last year. We work hard and I expect that out of all our guys,” he said. “I don’t see us as a bad boy team or anything like that. I don’t know. As long as we’re winning, that’s all I care about.”
McGill and forward Kevin Fukala, who both finished in the top 10 in the league in individual penalty minutes, did most of the dirty work last season. Fukala managed to finish eighth in the league despite playing in 23 of Augusta’s 56 regular season games.
Though many of the penalty minutes and more exciting incidents came against Knoxville, the Ice Bears weren’t the only team targeting the RiverHawks last season. Augusta forward Jim Gehring, tied for the league lead with 14 goals in 14 games this season, said the team’s reputation from last year has carried over into Year 2.
“We have a rivalry with every team because of the penalty minutes we take,” he said. “We got that reputation last year, and it just stuck with us. Some teams just don’t like the way we play. It’s hard-nosed and we don’t let up.”
While Knoxville hasn’t kept up last year’s penalty minute pace this season, the RiverHawks certainly have. Augusta once again ranks second in the league with 328 penalty minutes through 14 games. That tally doesn’t include another incident in Knoxville that took place two weeks ago in which McGill went after an Ice Bears season ticket holder who was heckling him after the game.
Though the fan claimed McGill struck him in the neck with a hockey stick, a league review determined no disciplinary actions were required.
Fukala, who ended the 2010-11 season with a 10-game suspension, is now in the Central Hockey League, but Ralph found another, more skilled contributor in defenseman Tyson Gimblett, who has already served a six-game suspension for his physical play.
Gimblett, who led the league with 62 penalty minutes, was loaned to Bakersfield in the ECHL Wednesday and won’t suit up for Augusta tonight, McGill, the new league leader at 61 penalty minutes, and forward-turned-defenseman Kyle Watson will.
“Tyson brings the physical presence and that fierceness we need,” Gehring said. “Him and Watson have been real physical, and that’s allowed the rest of us to not have to worry about guys taking cheap shots because they know there will be repercussions.”
The RiverHawks (11-2-1) will also play host to the Mississippi Surge on Friday.