It doesn’t take long to notice the passion in the play of Kyle Gibbons. The senior forward for Canisius dances on the edge of emotion in every game.
When things are going well, he’s displaying his talents as one of the best goal scorers in Golden Griffins history.
When things aren’t going so well, he’s sitting in the penalty box.
The emotion can turn in a second.
And in a rivalry series with playoff positioning on the line, channeling emotion for good instead of evil becomes crucial to success.
Welcome to this season’s Canisius-Niagara college hockey showdown week.
The teams meet tonight at Dwyer Arena at 7 p.m. (Radio 1340 AM) and then again on Saturday at the Buffalo State Ice Arena in the home-and-home weekend.
The Griffs are one point ahead of the Purple Eagles in the Atlantic Hockey standings with just four points separating seventh-place Niagara from fourth place and a first-round playoff bye.
Gibbons has 54 career goals for the Griffs, eight behind all-time leader Cory Conacher. He’s particularly dangerous on the power play and an emotional leader for the Griffs.
But sometimes that emotion comes out in less than ideal ways. Consider that he leads all current Griffs in penalty minutes against Niagara, getting sent to the box nine times for 18 minutes in his 12 career games against the Purple Eagles.
“I’ve always kinda, I guess, worn my heart on my sleeve is the expression everybody uses,” Gibbons said. “I don’t know why. I’ve always been an emotional player. I always get really involved. I don’t know if that’s the competitive nature I have or what it is, but I need to do a better job of staying away from the refs and not getting caught up in what they’re calling or what they’re not calling. Just play my game. Because when I get outside of that, I take a bad penalty and it costs us, and as a senior you’ve got to set a better example.”
But that emotion, that wearing his heart on his sleeve, is not something anyone wants out of Gibbons’ game. It’s all about learning how to use it in a positive way and park the frustration and negativity.
“That’s been a four-year work in progress, and much like for me and for a lot of people, that work is never going to end,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “Kyle is a passionate guy. He loves to score goals. He loves to have the puck. And when he doesn’t have it, he wants it. That want coupled with the will to get it comes out as emotion and comes out most of the time positive. But he’s spent a lot of time figuring that out, knowing where the line is. I want him to keep it. I absolutely want him to keep playing with emotion and that energy that makes him a special player because when his skill and emotion come together, he’s as good as anybody. … Let the passion be channeled in the right direction and absolutely live on the edge. Sometimes you cross over, but that’s the sport that we’re in.”
For Niagara, the lesson on crossing over the line was collectively learned this season when it was swept, at home, by Holy Cross. In the second game at Dwyer on Jan. 18, the Purple Eagles jumped to a 2-0 lead but let emotions get the better of them in the second period. The game started to get away from Niagara, and the parade to the penalty box soon began. The Crusaders went 1 for 8 on the power play and won the game, 3-2.
Handling emotion during the course of a game is something that the Purple Eagles have had to address this season.
“We’ve been a fragile group in that regard,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I think we’re maturing on a daily basis, but we learned a valuable lesson in that Holy Cross game. We didn’t think our opponent beat us; we beat ourselves. We haven’t done that since, which is good. That’s what you want. It’s a fine line. Obviously this game is always played on the edge, especially with Canisius.”
Niagara senior Ryan Rashid has been here before and for him management of the emotional side of the game comes through preparation.
“I think the biggest thing is just being focused,” Rashid said. “Not reading, sorry, but not reading the paper or doing any of that type of stuff. The biggest thing is just staying focused on who you’re playing.
“The one constant is hard work. If you bear down and put your nose to the grindstone, I think things always work out in your favor. Fortunately, we’ve had enough success against cross-town rivals that we’ve been able to manage that.”