By Sarah Kwak
The scene was familiar to any fan, but particularly to those who know and love the trenches of minor minor-league hockey. Off a third-period draw last Friday -- in a game in which the Danville Dashers trailed the Dayton Demonz by four goals with less than 10 minutes to go in their Federal League seasons -- Danville forward Matt Puntureri and Dayton center Jesse Felten shed their gloves, elbow pads and helmets and made for center ice. They looked at each other as they deked and danced from there to the far blue line, but when Puntureri made his move to scrap, he did so with outstretched arms. Felten, too, opened his arms wide, and the two hugged it out before a punch was thrown. But that’s not all. Puntureri then reached into his hockey shorts and took out a can of Coors Light, a leftover from the Dashers' rookie party last week. He cracked it open and, with his arm around Felten while flashing a peace sign, the two skated around the rink in a surprising show of harmony.
On the video of the “hug and beer fight,” which went viral over the weekend, an announcer proclaimed, “I think that was set up.” His ever-astute reasoning proved correct.
“It was my idea, not to brag or anything,” Puntureri said on Monday from his home in Wampum, Pa. “I’m always pulling silly antics like this, whether it be some celebrations or anything like that.”
So with the season nearing its end, he came up with his suds-and-a-warm-embrace idea, and before a game between the two clubs the previous Sunday, he approached Felten, a good friend and former teammate. The two had played for the FHL’s New York Aviators in 2010-11. “I have a business proposition for you,” Puntureri said. Felten enthusiastically agreed to the scheme.
The plan was to pull the stunt at around the 10 minute mark of the third period, so during a media timeout, Puntureri slipped the beer into his shorts and gave a knowing nod to Felten as he went out to take the face-off. They had discussed having Felten raise a beer as well, but given that his Demonz were playoff-bound and had games left to play, the two players didn’t want to risk getting him suspended for the sake of the stunt. Turns out, it didn’t matter. The FHL has banned Felten for the entire playoffs, and, though Puntureri hasn’t officially gotten word from the league, he’s heard through the grapevine that he’s been slapped with a lifetime ban from the league -- a most severe punishment for a largely harmless, and quite hilarious, stunt.
"I wouldn't take back what happened, even if it meant not getting suspended, I guess," Felten says. "Punts has been a real good friend of mine, and it's kind of upsetting to see what happened. But at the same time, it was all in good fun. It wasn't meant to piss the league off or make them look bad, even though they maybe took it that way."
"We've gotten a lot of attention over it, which has kind of been cool," he added. "It blew up more than we expected or planned for it to."
The league did not respond to SI.com’s requests for comment, but it seems safe to assume that the FHL thought the “fight” was embarrassing, and that it made a mockery of a league that wants to be considered legitimate. Established in 2010, the fledgling Federal Hockey League, however, is not totally unlike the one depicted in the cult classic movie Slap Shot -- which was simply called the Federal League. The FHL is a low-budget minor league with four teams located in small, sleepy towns like Danville, Ill. (pop. 33,000) and Watertown, N.Y. (pop. 27,900). It’s a circuit in which the leading scorer (Dayton’s Ahmed Mahfouz, with 96 points) also has 190 penalty minutes. And before Friday's stunt turned on the spotlight, it was best known for having had a team fold a month into its existence, only to relocate and be forced to fill its roster by picking up available bodies in nearby towns on the road.
The Federal League's players may have dreamed of playing in the NHL once upon a time, but they now grind away with no illusions, simply happy to do what they love while making maybe $300 a week, the equivalent of three days of an NHLer’s per diem road-trip meal allowance. It’s not a glamorous life, and when players have been through as long a losing season as the Dashers had (16-36-5), sometimes just a little bit of fun can make a world of difference.
“I know the guys were frustrated,” Puntureri says. “But at least we could end the season ... I wouldn’t really call it a high note, but it was a fun note at least.”
Danville and Dayton make up the FHL's de facto western conference, and share a heated rivalry with a history of bench-clearing brawls. Their season opener on Nov. 1 featured four separate fights, the last of which resulted in 75 penalty minutes between both teams. In 20 meetings this season, they’ve shared fighting majors in all but six games. Perhaps poignantly, Friday’s match was one of the six without a, well, technical fight.
So, the Puntureri-Felten hug-it-out offered an ironic twist to the usual FHL fare, though it wasn't even jokester Puntureri’s favorite prank. Known for his colorful and comedic celebrations, he’s got plenty to choose from. After scoring, he’s crouched into the familiar rowboat pose, then thrown his stick and “jumped overboard” to mime swimming on the ice. And once, in a game around Christmas, he hid a candy cane in his pants to use as a goal celebration prop. “I could feel the candy cane crushing on my first shift and was like, I have to score soon or else this isn’t going to work,” he recalls laughing. He did score soon thereafter, and popped the candy cane in his mouth before throwing it into the crowd.
But nothing he's done has garnered as much attention as Friday’s beery hug with Felten. Puntureri's phone has been buzzing non-stop, he says, and he even got a call from a Canadian newspaper. Felten changed his Facebook profile picture to one from Friday night's game and within 20 hours it had more than 200 likes. “I was really surprised because I had pulled so many stunts before and it was never a big deal,” Puntureri says. “Most of the feedback’s been positive, which I’m very happy for.”
But, of course, not all of it has been high-fives and belly laughs. The league was not amused, and some, including commissioner Don Kirnan, accused him of making a mockery of the game while explaining that players are forbidden to bring beer onto the ice. The Dashers removed the video of the "fight" from the team's Facebook page with the explanation that the incident was "an internal matter" to be resolved. Some people wondered if the stunt was a grand statement about fighting’s place in hockey -- which Puntureri says unequivocally it was not. No, if anything, it was simply a statement about having fun.
“I guess that’s my message to the world through all my antics,” he says. “It’s a message about being happy, having fun and not taking everything quite so seriously -- just enjoying life.”
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