Crushing hit exposes grey area

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

The tendency is to want to blame somebody, find a reason to hold someone responsible for what happened to Ben Fanelli.

The skull of the 16-year-old boy has been fractured. It could have been my son, could have been yours. His orbital bone has been smashed. He remains in the intensive care unit of Hamilton General Hospital in critical but stable condition, his future, in life and in hockey, is unknown.

It makes all of us want to scream and worry about how many times our own kids have circled behind the net and somehow escaped any kind of danger. It was a hockey play gone wrong. Of all that is sad about what happened to Fanelli in Kitchener on Friday night, little is as distressing as the ambiguity of that.

Michael Liambis never did leave his feet when he hit Fanelli, the former Mississauga Senators star. It wasn't a head shot. It was shoulder against shoulder. I backed up the tape of the incident, stopped it, looked at it over and over. I wanted to be certain. I wanted to find someone to blame for hurting this kid whom NHL scouts already have on their radar.

But I found nothing but a hockey play with prospect and suspect crossing paths.

"You see it every night," said Steve Spott, the Kitchener coach, devastated by the incident and all that has happened since. "Every game I tell my kids, finish your checks. There is no penalty for checking in hockey. It's a physical sport. But at the same time, you have to have a level of respect on the ice. We continue to educate our young players about this. They have to understand. There has to be respect in this game."

That is the fine line, the indiscernible line between legal and illegal, proper and improper. Where does it start and where is it crossed ? Liambis has been a run-of-the-mill junior hockey player, a tough guy of sorts who doesn't score much and has to be physical to find a place on a team. But he never has been known as a head-hunter or what some would call a dirty player.

"He's not a player we highlight or discuss before the game," said Spott, talking about preparing his team to play the Eric Otters. Since the incident, Liambis has hardly stopped crying and he's not alone.

Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch held a conference call with the Kitchener coaching staff to discuss the hit on Fanelli. Spott has not watched the hit since it happened, nor does he plan to. Today, a hearing will take place on the matter, and in all likelihood some kind of suspension for Liambis will follow. But it's no easy call. Not when clean hit somehow turns to devastation.

There was no original penalty assessed on the hit, no referee's arm went in the air. Yet, Liambis was given a match penalty for boarding and in almost every jurisdiction a match penalty comes with some kind of automatic suspension.

The difficulty for Branch is determining what is right and what is fair when one player has been so damaged, when there is all kinds of publicity -- how many times have you seen the helmet flying -- when if you rule too heavily you may be ignoring the facts and if you rule too lightly, which isn't his tendency, you may not be demonstrating enough respect.

However, Branch's ruling will change little for Fanelli. The hope is that he is young enough and brave enough to will himself, with considerable help from the hospital's medical staff, to regain his health.

"Nothing is more important in all of this than Ben getting better," said Sherry Bassin, managing partner of the Erie Otters.

Healing is necessary for all involved.

"From the outside, it's easy to forget these are just kids," Spott said. "I take personal responsibility for every kid who comes to play for us. Maybe they don't do things regular teenagers do but they still have the same emotions. We forget that sometimes. We have to take care of them, no matter what, especially now. And for all of us right now, we have to go through some counselling. We need it.''

STEVE.SIMMONS@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos