To the Columbia Inferno and their fans, Augusta Lynx superpest Lance Galbraith is public enemy No. 1.
The feeling, Galbraith says, is mutual.
"There's definitely some animosity there between the teams and the fans, and every game seems like a playoff game," said Galbraith, whose Lynx face the Inferno tonight at Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center. "You want to do whatever it takes to win. It's a great rivalry, and it's a good war every time we play each other. It's very special when these two teams meet because we both try to kill one another."
Although Galbraith's role in stoking the flames of the rivalry dates to last season, it was his pummeling of Inferno winger Eric Labelle during Augusta's 8-1 loss at Columbia on Oct. 24 that pushed the level of animosity over the edge.
The incident began when former Lynx defenseman Likit Andersson drilled Inferno forward Tim Smith into the boards. Labelle came to Smith's defense and jumped Andersson, then former Lynx defenseman Phil Lakos grabbed Labelle.
Galbraith then swooped in and landed a punch that broke Labelle's nose.
"The Labelle incident with me, that wasn't a great situation, but that's hockey," Galbraith said. "The fans there don't appreciate what I'm doing. I don't care. Does that make me the most hated player in Columbia? I sure hope so."
The opening shot in the war between the clubs came last season, when a run-in on the ice between Lynx coach David Wilkie and Columbia's Dennis Vial spilled over to a war of words off the ice.
In the closing minutes of a Nov. 2001 game in Augusta, Vial hit Wilkie from behind near the bench. Wilkie, who has played one season for the Lynx after his NHL career was cut short by a knee injury, ripped Vial, a former NHL enforcer with the Ottawa Senators, for the hit.
"Wilkie put some fuel on the fire with that, thats for sure," Galbraith said.
Wilkie said last year's feud is a non-issue now.
"We talked after a game up there (in January), and just had a nice, cordial conversation," Wilkie said. "Nothing was said about what happened last year. There's definitely a mutual respect there between us."
The latest meeting between the teams, a 7-1 Lynx win in Columbia, produced the latest salvo fired by Inferno coach Scott White.
White was incensed by what he felt was "excessive celebrating" by the Lynx after goals.
"Hockey players are a strange breed," White told The (Columbia) State after the Jan. 24 game. "They're going to remember this. We'll play them again, I believe. When you get humbled in your own building and the other team is enjoying it a little too much, hockey players don't forget."
How will White and Columbia respond tonight? Considering the Inferno have taken over first place in the Southeast Division and are one of the hottest teams in the ECHL, the Lynx aren't expecting any kind of retaliation.
"They're well coached, and they got a good team over there with some good leadership, plus they're fighting for a division title," Galbraith said. "They're a first-place team. What can you say? They deserve to be there. You can't worry about what they might do. My main concern is the Augusta Lynx and myself."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.