Potential deadliness of game driven home

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

David Branch can suspend Erie's Michael Liambas from here to kingdom come.

The OHL commissioner can change the rules, soften equipment, renovate rink glass and order reviews and studies into what went wrong.

But he doesn't have a magic wand to fix Ben Fanelli, the rookie Kitchener Ranger left to battle back from a fractured skull.

He can't erase the terrible images of the hit, the pool of blood, a 16-year-old airlifted to hospital and the Otters and Rangers forming prayer circles of concern on the ice.

There's certainly nothing he can do to assure us otherwise of the next horrifying possibility made so real at the Aud last Friday night. Someone will one day die from a body check.

Just like senior player Don Sanderson died as a result of a fight last year.

Just like players died hitting their head on the ice before helmets. Just like players have died taking slap shots to the chest.

Hockey is a fast and physical sport. It shouldn't become a deadly one.

No matter the outcome now, the OHL will wear this black mark.

The Fanelli situation doesn't suggest it's a bad league. But it gives the most important people involved -- the players and their families -- reasons to look elsewhere.

Joe Birch is the OHL's director of recruiting and education services. He's responsible for attracting top prospects to this league instead of other routes such as U.S. college or other junior circuits.

That's a more difficult task today.

"I'm meeting with a midget team (tonight) and the (Fanelli) question will come up," Birch said. "All I can say is what I believe -- that this was an accident and that David Branch treats the league's kids as his own and that he will move quickly in his review and the safety of players is of utmost importance."

Birch offered the same kind of reassurance to Fanelli and his friends last year.

"I know him, I took Ben and his team (the Mississauga Senators midgets) to a Niagara IceDogs game," Birch said. "It's tough. We want to ensure our players are ready to play in the league and Ben was one of those shining lights who was ready.

"You do have 20-year-olds playing against 16-year-olds but there's a limit to them to focus on development of younger players. This (injury) could've happened in Tier II or midget.

"The NCAA might use it (to their advantage) but we could go back and forth on that. The most important thing is we give Ben and his family all the support we can."

That is the only concern.

And when it's time for questions, there are no quick answers.

It's the easy out to say Fanelli turned his body, that obstruction needs to return to hockey, that goalie Brandon Maxwell had his back to Liambas and couldn't yell a warning to his teammate or that Liambas, who was given a match penalty for boarding, should've let up with a player in such a vulnerable position.

But Liambas did what every forward is instructed to do: hit the defenceman so that next time, they'll worry you might be there.

Fisticuff fallout can be explained away.

Freak injuries can be justified as bad luck.

But hard hitting?

That's essential to the game.

Unfortunately for the OHL, the hit that makes you want to turn away could finally lead parents to look elsewhere at where their talented sons should play.

Ryan Pyette is a London Free Press sports reporter. ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca


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