Igor Gongalsky knew the Fresno Falcons needed an emotional lift, and the young Ukrainian winger knew just how to get it.
It was 2007 and Gongalsky, just 20 at the time, was a rookie and the youngest player on the Falcons roster.
Gongalsky had built a reputation in Canada’s major junior Ontario Hockey League as a rugged forward, a player not shy about contact and willing to drop the gloves when needed. But while Gongalsky wasn’t afraid to fight and stick up for his teammates, he wasn’t a classic tough guy, either.
Still, Gongalsky was trying to make a good impression on his teammates and understood his role and what needed to be done. He searched the ice for a willing combatant from the Bakersfield Condors. He eventually latched onto No. 25 — Condors winger Spencer Carbery.
“I can’t remember everything that happened, but I remember that we needed a spark, and it was my job to provide that,” Gongalsky said. “I went over to Spencer and asked if he wanted to go, he said ‘yes,’ and we went at it.”
The two dropped their gloves, a few glancing blows were exchanged and then they wrestled each other to ice.
The confrontation lasted all of about 15 seconds from beginning to end.
“I remember that Spencer was tough, he was very strong and that I probably didn’t want to fight him again,” Gongalsky said with a chuckle. “When we fought, it was nothing personal. It was my job, like someone having to file paperwork at their jobs.”
As it turned out, Gongalsky wouldn’t have to fight Carbery again. A year later, the two would be teammates and roommates with the Falcons. Five years after that, the two would be reunited again with the South Carolina Stingrays — Gongalsky as the team’s power forward and Carbery as the team’s head coach.
“It’s funny how things work out and how small of a community professional hockey is,” Carbery said. “You go from fighting the guy one day, to being roommates the next and now he’s playing for me here in South Carolina.”
Gongalsky, now 27, spent last season playing professionally in his native Ukraine. It was nice to be back home and the money was good, but he found he missed playing the North American syle of hockey.
“It wasn’t always the most professional atmosphere,” Gongalsky said. “The money is better when you get paid. That was part of the problem. You never knew if you were going to get paid from one week to the next. There was no emotion when we played. Guys didn’t care like they do here. Most were there just to pick up a paycheck.”
He yearned for a chance to play in North America again and get back to the American Hockey League. Before Gongalsky left for Europe, he had more than 100 games at the AHL level under his belt.
Gongalsky reached out to his old adversary and former teammate to see if the Stingrays might have a spot for him.
Carbery jumped at the chance to sign his former roommate.
“He’s a consummate professional,” Carbey said. “I’d seen it when I played against him and later when we were teammates. The way he plays, the way he prepares for each game, he’s a pro.”
It is Gongalsky’s versatility that makes him so valuable for the Stingrays. His ability to go into the corners and win 50-50 pucks, his skill around the net, and, yes, when necessary, his willingness to drop his gloves and fight.
“There are not many high-end guys like Igor at this level that play like he does,” Carbery said. “He’s a classic power forward at this level. He’s probably the best guy on the walls in our league, and he’s still willing to stick up for his teammates.”
With so many Stingrays up in the AHL, Carbery has had to lean heavily on Gongalsky for leadership this season. With the departure of so many Stingrays to the next level, Gongalsky also has been thrust into a more prominent offensive role. He has 16 points — four goals and 12 assists — in 27 games.
“I’m more of a leader by example,” Gongalsky said. “I’ll say something when I think it needs to be said.”
Gongalsky and Carbery’s relationship has evolved over the years — from combatants, to teammates to coach and player. While the two are still friends, Gongalsky knows who’s in charge.
“He’s the boss,” Gongalsky said. “If I see something, I’ll make a suggestion, but in the end, it’s his team. I’m going to do what he wants.”