Things could still change with more than half of the season yet to go, but one thing seems likely: Either the Michigan Gray Wolves or the Anchorage Igloos will win the SHL’s Western Division. The teams have traded titles in the last two years, and they appear to be shaping up for another heavyweight clash. The already-fierce rivalry gained a new, nastier edge after a chippy game between the two teams at Cadillac Place on Friday.
Prior to the game, Wolves coach Ron Wright seemed to hint that the contest might be a brutal one, saying, “These are the games that set the tone for the season. The team that’s able to set the tone physically and dictate the pace of play is definitely going to have the upper hand.” Igloos coach Sam Castor responded in kind, saying, “We’re not the kind of team that starts something, but we’re not going to let ourselves be pushed around.”
From the drop of the puck, it was clear that Michigan intended to slow down Anchorage’s high-flying offense with a brutal, punishing defensive style that harkened back to Martin Delorme‘s 2015 team. The Wolves defenders clamped down in the neutral zone; any Anchorage player that went into the corner for a puck or got near a board paid for it, harshly.
The Igloos felt that several players, most notably the top defensive pairing of “Mad Max” Madison and Fritz Kronstein, crossed the line from hard play into assault. Midway through the first period, Madison gave Igloos LW Jerry Koons a rough ride into the boards in the Anchorage end; Koons came up wobbly and a bit woozy, and headed down the tunnel briefly before returning. Castor repeatedly castigated the officials, who he felt were allowing the game to get out of control.
“I feel like the officials really fell down in this one,” the Igloos coach said later. “They had a chance to keep it from turning into a bloodbath with some early whistles, but they didn’t do it.”
The first period ended in a scoreless tie. Anchorage RW Remi Montrechere came off the ice bleeding from the eyebrow after an apparent high stick by Wolves D Bjorn Tollefson that went uncalled. Castor and his team grew furious in the locker room.
In the second period, the physical play continued, and Anchorage began to respond in kind. But when Madison went for a brutal open-ice hit on C Jake Frost that the Igloos felt was a low blow, matters came to a head. LW Les Collins went to Castor and asked to be put on the ice against Madison. Collins is a quiet player who generally eschews fights, but he’s also considered secretly tough.
Castor put Collins on the ice for the next shift, and the young winger immediately skated to Madison and challenged him to a fight. The burly defender, who outweighs Collins by at least 50 pounds, initially laughed off the challenge. But Collins persisted, shoving Madison repeatedly in the chest, and the blueliner eventually dropped the gloves and went at it. Collins emerged bruised and bloodied, but he landed a couple of good shots on Madison before referees separated the two and assessed them both fighting majors.
The two cooled their heels in the box for the next 5 minutes (and in the meantime, LW Todd Douglas scored to give the Wolves a 1-0 lead). But less than a minute after they were sprung, Collins came up to Madison again looking to scrap. This time, the veteran defenseman wasted no time unleashing his fists, and Collins suffered a nasty cut under his eye and lost a couple of teeth.
“I don’t look kindly on guys taking cheap shots at our players, especially stars like Jerry and Jake,” said Collins later. “We’re a family here, and when someone goes after the family, I’m not going to stand for it.”
The referees again assessed matching majors and warned both benches that any further incidents would lead to ejections. The teams managed to avoid any further fights, although the mood on the ice remained tense.
The Wolves took a 2-0 lead early in the third on a slapper from Kronstein, but the Igloos struck back in the final 5 minutes of the game, scoring twice within 24 seconds to tie it up. Collins assisted on the tying goal, feeding Montrechere for a shot from the faceoff circle, and he made a point of skating past the Michigan bench and staring Madison down.
The game ended as a 2-2 tie, and several players on both sides, including Collins and Madison, had to be restrained from throwing hands after the final siren.
“I couldn’t believe that little shrimp wanted a piece of me,” said Madison afterward. “He might be crazier than me. He’s like a little yappy dog. But I’ll give him credit – he fought like hell. And he kept coming, even after I loosened his teeth. That little guy showed me something.”
Both teams suggested that unpleasantries might well resume in their next matchup. “I think there’s plenty of bad blood to go around here,” said Wright. “Neither of these teams is going down without a fight.”