Illini foster tough mentality with physical altercations

Illini goaltender Nick Clarke poke-checked Ohio’s leading goal scorer Brett Agnew in the crotch as he passed through the crease.

Defenseman Austin Zima flipped off the Bobcats’s bench as he went to the penalty box after a post-whistle scrap.

It was a CSCHL rivalry game, and the tension was rising Saturday night until it finally boiled over.

When Illinois’ Eddie Quagliata and Cody von Rueden jumped in to protect Jacob Matysiak, who was in a scuffle with two Ohio players late in the second period, the hometown crowd exploded into cheers, getting the fight that most hockey fans hope for when coming to games. But for the Illini, it wasn’t just entertainment, but rather a bonding moment that energized the team.

Von Rueden, who jumped off the bench to come to Matysiak’s aid, called it a matter of defending teammates who he knows would have his back in a fight. Quagliata said his reaction to jump into the scuffle was instinctive as a player, seeing a teammate outnumbered in an altercation.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini said he likes to see the Illini getting into scraps on the ice, since it helps them become a tougher all-around team to play against.

“I like to see us play with a little bit of an edge,” Fabbrini said. “Obviously, I’m not looking for anyone to play cheap, and we don’t want to play a chippy game, but going hard to the net and being difficult to play against is stuff we need to do all the time.”

While fights may appear to be fueled with hatred and disdain, there is an etiquette. After trading a fair share of jabs at each other, Quagliata could be seen tapping the Ohio player’s helmet, something he said players do to mutually separate, but also to say: “Hey, good fight.”

“Hockey is known to respect the other team,” Quagliata said. “You don’t like them, of course, but anyone who’s going to have the (guts) to do any of that (stuff), tap them on the butt after.”

Illinois and Ohio didn’t go far enough to warrant discipline from the ACHA, but came close. Dropping the gloves and removing the helmet to formally fight an opponent results in an automatic suspension in the ACHA, but it’s also something defenseman Cody von Rueden, who came off the bench to help protect Matysiak, said he doesn’t think twice about.

“Fighting and aggressiveness are a part of hockey, regardless if it’s illegal technically in the ACHA,” von Rueden said. “I don’t care, I’m still going to jump in for my teammates.”

Von Rueden did receive a two-minute minor penalty for roughing, but said he was happy about what he did to stand up for his teammate.

“It doesn’t stop me, as you can see,” von Rueden said. “If I’m going to get a penalty for sticking up for my teammates, I’ll take that penalty all day. These are the guys I go to war with every single day at the rink, and especially in the heat of the moment with that crowd and the team we were playing with, no way am I going to let my teammates sit down there empty-handed over there. I was the first one to jump in and I’ll do it every single time.”

In most cases, post-whistle altercations are mutually instigated and referees will send both players involved to the box with matching roughing minors, equally penalizing both teams. That way, neither team benefits with a power play from the incident. A team can benefit from post-whistle scraps through shifts in momentum and intimidation, though.

On Saturday, the Illini’s aggressively physical forecheck was a major factor in their 5-2 win over Ohio, which developed offensive opportunities and led to Illinois scoring its most goals in over a month. Fabbrini said he’s happy about the team’s intimidation factor is finally kicking in, after losing eight of its last 10 games.

“Obviously not everybody can score goals every game, but everybody can finish their checks, everybody can block shots, everybody can play a strong defense and be tough to play against,” Fabbrini said. “That’s something that we’re striving for, is to be tougher and tougher to play against.”

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