Hockey prevails over Eastern Michigan amid combative games

By Sean Neumann

Eastern Michigan’s players used their sticks more as weapons than instruments for playing hockey this weekend.

Heated words turned into slashes, and slashes turned into shoving back-and-forth between the Eagles (13-24-3) and the No. 18 Illini (21-17-2), who defeated Eastern Michigan in both games.

Officials handed out 94 combined penalty minutes to the two teams during Illinois’ weekend sweep, with the majority shared between Eastern Michigan brothers Bobby Gasser and Tony Gasser (49 combined penalty minutes).

Referees ejected Eagles captain Bobby Gasser from Saturday’s game after amassing 23 penalty minutes and refusing to lessen his aggression late in the game with the Illini already up 5-1. His younger brother, Tony, was ejected from Friday’s contest with 16 penalty minutes after he swung his stick at Illini fans above the penalty box.

“That’s way too far, and it’s inappropriate,” Illinois defenseman Cody von Rueden said of the incident. “Fans are here because they’re fans and love the game. It was just absolutely unacceptable. Fans and players do interact, especially here since this is one of the craziest places to play in the ACHA, but that’s definitely not needed. I’m happy that guy got kicked out.”

The fragile emotions on the ice led to a high, blindsided hit on Illini defenseman Austin Zima early in the third period Friday night, leaving the freshman laying face-down on the ice for more than five minutes.

Zima was diagnosed with a concussion after being lifted off the ice by assistant captain Matt Welch and an Illini trainer. It’s his fourth concussion in just two years.

“I don’t think Zima ever saw him coming,” Illini head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “Whenever you see anybody down on the ice, it’s upsetting and alarming. It was nice to see him sit up.”

Zima said he will visit with doctors Monday morning to evaluate the extent of his concussion and find out if he can play in Illinois’ opening round game against No. 15 Arizona this Thursday in the ACHA National Tournament.

Freshman forward Matt Flosi, who’s known for being Illinois’ agitator on the ice, said he thought this weekend’s physicality was taken to a further extent than necessary.

“I think there was a little intent to injure out there and that’s the kind of stuff you don’t need on the ice,” Flosi said. “There’s a difference between going out there and trying to make a big hit on somebody and trying to injure them and take them out of the game. I think that’s just unacceptable.”

Illinois outshot the Eagles 101-39 throughout the weekend on its way to a 7-0 shutout Friday and a 7-1 win Saturday. In a pair of one-sided games that didn’t affect Illinois’ league standings, Fabbrini said the Illini aimed to treat the series like any other, but were conscious of risky plays.

“We obviously don’t want to back down and be physically intimidated,” Fabbrini said. “(Our team) is a tight-knit group and guys want to stick up for each other. I’m all in favor of that, but it’s got to be within the flow and the context of the game.”

Fabbrini said he reminded the Illini to not lose composure throughout the weekend.

“It was just important for us to remember that we have a huge game on Thursday,” Fabbrini said. “We need everybody healthy and everybody eligible to play.”

Just a few days before the national tournament, Illinois is now facing the possibility of entering the tournament down a defenseman who’s played nearly every game this season.

“Hockey is a physical game, and it can get cheap and get nasty,” von Rueden said. “You can get injured every time you step onto the ice.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.