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Graves contributed photo

Quad City Storm forward Al Graves (17) squares off against Pensacola's Andrew Schmit in a game earlier this year. Graves is showing he can be more than just a fighter for the Storm with his recent play.

Al Graves isn't one to back down from a challenge.

With the Quad-City Storm up 2-0 over the weekend on the Peoria Rivermen, the Storm enforcer was asked to fight by his opposite number in Peoria's Pijus Rulevicius.

A few seconds and several punches later, Graves was pumping up the crowd, enjoying the moment.

"I figured if I could get a good whooping in ... that would really deflate the Peoria bench," Graves said. "Once I got the crowd into it, I thought that could be a complete momentum changer."

The fight fired up the fans at the TaxSlayer Center and the Storm earned a 4-3 win over Peoria, their third of the year over the top team in the league.

A lot of coaches might not felt comfortable letting an enforcer who has already been suspended 12 games this season answer the bell like that, but Storm head coach Dave Pszenyczny had no issues with the situation.

"I told Al, 'If somebody wants to fight you when we're up, go ahead because I have all the confidence in you that you're going to keep the momentum for us,'" Pszenyczny said. "If anything, he gave us more momentum."

Graves has had his ups and downs this year with the Storm but is thriving of late and showing he can be more than just a fighter. His three goals are one off of his career high and his five points are his most since 2017.

"I'm here to play hockey first," Graves said. "The fighting is something, if it happens, it happens, but I'm always prepared for it."

In a sport where players can begin playing as early as 4 years old, Graves didn't start playing hockey until he was 10, growing up running track in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He played sparingly at Division III Williams College and also spent two years at Cornell University before turning pro in 2015.

Up until the beginning of his professional career, Graves, now 29, hadn't fought. His father was an amateur kickboxer for 20 years, but the Storm enforcer didn't have any experience with the role.

It wasn't until he found his way to the Danbury Titans in the Federal Hockey League that he was asked whether it was something he was willing to do.

Graves' first professional fight came on Nov. 14, 2015, against Zach Hale of the Brewster Bulldogs, and he now has 24 official fights on his fight card in four seasons, with two more coming in preseasons. He pours a lot of hours into honing his craft. He works out constantly and studies film of other enforcers he might have to go up against, looking for tendencies he can exploit.

It's a dangerous skill, but so far, Graves has been lucky to avoid any concussions. He has, however, broken his wrist twice and suffered multiple broken fingers.

"I don't know if anyone truly likes fighting," Graves said. "You know you're going to get hit, you know you're going to get tagged. ... I don't mind it, and I'll definitely stick up for my teammates in a heartbeat. It's something I fell into and something I've been accustomed to, but I don't think anybody really enjoys it."

It's a role that has diminished over the years in the sport but one that is still necessary in a game that is often self-policed.

"If I don't have a guy like Al, teams are probably going to take advantage of my skill guys," Pszenyczny said. "Having him, just on the bench, and you're on the other side, you're thinking, 'Do I really want to run this guy?' Now my skill player can play and do whatever he wants."

With Graves' increased skill at fighting has also come a reputation that has at times made him unpopular in the league. He's been suspended twice this year, including a nine-game stint after leaving the bench to jump Peoria captain Alec Hagaman in December.

Graves regrets the way the whole thing was handled but felt a message needed to be sent after Hagaman laid a hit on Dalton Mills the night before that left Mills concussed.

"I think I took a big brother mentality, and it might not have been the best way to address it," Graves said. "Dalton Mills is possibly one of my closer buddies on the team, and from what we saw on the bench, it looked like Hagaman put a flying elbow into the back of his head, and we thought for sure he would have got at least (a five-game suspension) for that."

Hagaman didn't receive a suspension, and 62 seconds into the rematch, Graves came flying off the bench, jumping on the Peoria captain and driving him into the Quad-City net. It started a chain reaction that ended with 199 total penalty minutes in the game.

"I wanted to take matters into my own hands. If the league wasn't going to do anything, I was going to rectify it," Graves said. "In the end, it wasn't the best decision."

Pszenyczny has supported Graves but needed him to know that behavior wasn't going to be accepted. He didn't bring Graves to the Quad-Cities to be a goon and made it clear he wouldn't tolerate any more of those incidents.

"Maybe a coach that has more experience would have gotten rid of him," Pszenyczny said. "But, to me, it was, OK, here's your warning and let's step forward. ... I love it because (since then) he's played the game the way it's meant to be played."

Since returning from that suspension, Graves has scored two goals and added an assist in seven games. As he showed on Saturday, he's still willing to fight, but after accruing 58 penalty minutes in 13 games prior to the suspension, he's only compiled 11 in the seven games back.

"In this day and age, you need some semblance of skill. Those days where the enforcer just goes around fighting, they don't exist," Graves said. "Coach really instilled that in me in our meeting. ... He's put me in a position to play and produce, and I feel like I've been doing that since I've come back."

Graves bounced around four different teams last year, but he feels like he's found a home with the Storm. The Quad-Cities is used to his brand of hockey, and when Graves is at his best, it's hard not to think he would have fit in well along with Kerry Toporowski and Mark McFarlane, whose numbers hang in the rafters at the TaxSlayer Center and who became fan favorites thanks to their physical play with the Quad-City Mallards 20 years ago.

"I've never seen such support from a group of people," Graves said. "I consider myself a blue-collar player. I work hard, I do what I'm supposed to and I stick up for my teammates."

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Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times