By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – In the old days at L.C. Walker Arena, hockey fights were an accepted part of the game, and a major draw for some local fans.
But two players dropping the gloves is a lot less common in the United States Hockey League.
That’s why Friday night’s spirited scrap between Muskegon’s Keegan Ward and Sioux Falls’ Chaz Switzer was such an eye-opener.
Both are known around the league as tough players who won’t back down from a fight when it comes their way. Both are in the top 20 in the league in penalty minutes, and Ward is known for engaging in six fights last season as a member of the Lincoln Stars.
The fight was even more intriguing because Switzer is a former Lumberjack and the son of longtime Muskegon Mohawk Erle Switzer.
The two squared off in the third period of Friday’s 5-2 Lumberjacks victory. They each got in their share of solid blows, although Switzer ended up on top, which probably delighted his local fan club, which was in attendance.
The fight was probably an extension of a previous battle between the two players. They also squared off in a September exhibition game, before Ward was traded from Lincoln to Muskegon.
In previous seasons, the fight would have resulted in a five-minute major for both players. They would have cooled their heels in the penalty box and returned to the game.
But not this season.
Fans were undoubtedly confused when they heard the announcement that both Switzer and Ward received game misconducts (automatic ejections) for participating in a “staged fight.”
What in the world does that mean? Has hockey become like pro wrestling, where violence is pre-planned and acted out?
Not quite, according to USHL spokesman Brian Werger.
“They are fights that don’t normally happen in the course of play,” Werger told Local Sports Journal. “It’s a situation where maybe they line up for a faceoff and tell each other ‘Hey, we’re going to go at it when the puck is dropped.”
Game misconducts for “staged fights” is not the only new rule this season. All fights are punishable by 10-minute misconducts for both combatants.
“(Fighting is) a part of the game that’s going away,” Werger said. “It’s penalized a little differently, starting this year.”
The automatic misconduct rule hurt the Lumberjacks in their 7-3 loss to Sioux Falls on Saturday. High scoring forward Tom Marchin exchanged punches with Switzer, and was lost to the team for most of the first period.
Marchin has been scoring at a rapid clip lately, but he couldn’t do that from the penalty box.
Both weekend games were out of character for the Lumberjacks, who have a lot of very skilled players who have nothing to gain from engaging in rough stuff.
The two teams combined for 71 penalty minutes Friday night and 74 on Saturday.
As Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier put it, “It’s a waste of our talent and skill.”
The Lumberjacks are now 17-7-1 with 35 points in the standings, good for second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They are five points behind first-place Cedar Rapids, which is 20-4-0 with 40 points.
Friday’s victory was the fourth straight for the Lumberjacks and seventh in eight games.
Muskegon and Cedar Rapids are currently the top contenders for the Anderson Cup, which goes to the team with the most points in the regular season. Sioux City, the first place team in the Western Conference, currently has 33 points.
The Lumberjacks missed a golden opportunity to pick up points on Cedar Rapids on Saturday. The Roughriders experienced a rare loss – 3-1 to Sioux City – which gave Muskegon a chance to pull within three points of first place, if they could have completed a weekend sweep of Sioux Falls.
The Jacks will resume play Friday night against Chicago at L.C. Walker Arena. Puck drop is 7:15 p.m.
The man in black
A lot of fans have probably noticed Krygier on the bench in recent weeks, dressed head-to-toe in black. It started a few weeks ago, and he’s been dressing the same way – in the same outfit – every game since then.
Assistant Coach Todd Robinson has also embraced the Johnny Cash look once or twice, but he’s been mixing it up.
Not so for Krygier, who is clearly the superstitious type. The Jacks have been winning a lot lately, and the coach said he has no intention of changing his game outfit as long as the hot streak continues.
“Now that we’re winning I can’t change,” Krygier said after Friday’s win. “I’ve got to keep my shirt dry cleaned. Hopefully I will wear it every game for the rest of the season.”
It will be interesting to see what his wardrobe selection is this Friday, since his team lost on Saturday to break its winning streak.
Molino earns league honor
The Lumberjacks’ Griffen Molino was named the USHL’s “CCM Forward of the Week” for collecting five points in the two games last weekend against Sioux Falls.
He had a goal and two assists in Friday’s game, and two more assists in Saturday’s game.
Molino is currently third in the league in scoring (and tops on the Lumberjacks) with seven goals and 22 assists for 29 points.