Justin Sawyer, the Central Hockey League leader in major penalties, is a 6-foot-6 expert on dropping his gloves and helmet to the ice. "Fighting's definitely one of my favorite parts of the game,” said the Blazers enforcer. "You get to square off in front of the fans, and they love it and it just gets you pumped up. When you're squared off it's a good feeling, and then when the fight's over you know you tried your best and all of your teammates are happy about it, so it just makes you feel good.”
Sawyer was feeling good on the night of Feb. 2. The biggest Youngstown SteelHound, 6-foot-6 Milan Maslonka, was feeling good, too. So they fought. Twice. "We had to fight, because it is our work, our job,” said Maslonka, who is second in the CHL in penalty minutes. "I'm not really a fighter, but when I have to fight, I fight. I'm not scared about a fight.” There is no scared in hockey fights. "You're not afraid, but you get nervous,” Blazers forward Marty Standish said, "because you don't really want to get beat up in front of your peers, in front of your teammates and in front of the fans.” There are three reasons hockey fights happen, and Sawyer believes all of them are good. "One is to get the fans and your team going,” he said. "One is if another guy takes a liberty on your teammate, and you want to make sure that they don't do it again. And another is if you're having a bad game yourself you can just start fighting and get into it a little bit more.” Two Blazers — Graham Dearle and Tyler Harden — have had their jaws broken by punches this season. But both injuries came on what the Blazers say were cheap shots, when they weren't looking, not during what would be called a fight. "You're lucky if you get a couple of shots square in a hockey fight,” Sawyer said. "Everyone's moving and you're going around in a circle and the guy's got ahold of you, so you're lucky if you get a couple of good ones in.” Injuries happen in fights, of course. But usually not. "The worst you're usually going to get on the ice is a broken nose,” said the Blazers' other enforcer, 6-foot-4 Erick Lizon. "It's not like on the street where a guy can pull out a weapon or something.” Players estimate that 30 percent of the fights in hockey are arranged before the game even starts. Grudge matches. "There are guys, who over time, you develop a kind of hate for,” Sawyer said, "and every game you play against him you usually get into it. That definitely happens. I know last year I fought one guy four times.” When Texas' Chris Mann broke Dearle's jaw on Jan. 5, everyone on both teams knew a Blazer or two would ask Mann to "dance” the next time he played against them. Sure enough, three weeks later, 1:56 into the next Blazers-Texas tilt, Lizon introduced himself to Mann. Mann probably should expect more of the same March 9, when Texas returns to the Ford Center. "We'll ask him (to fight) and be on him all game,” Lizon said. "He'll play nervous, and it'll help our team. He'll be tense the whole game.
Wichita's Mike Batovanja, left, and the Blazers' Erick Lizon fight during the first period of a game at the Ford Center on Jan. 13. By SARAH PHIPPS, THE OKLAHOMAN