Two victims in OHL tragedy

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:48 AM ET

There are now two victims in the Ben Fanelli incident, two young men who began their hockey seasons with great hope and end them in shocking disappointment.

Fanelli, the Kitchener Rangers rookie defenceman, remains in hospital, his condition improving, but to what extent after a fractured skull, a broken orbital bone, we don't really know.

Michael Liambas, 20, is finished with junior hockey, the message of an excessive season-long suspension being very clear: David Branch doesn't want him in his league anymore. The length of suspension seems both cruel and at the same time necessary.

This wasn't about the two players he hurt on the Guelph Storm in recent games. This wasn't about any past history. This was about one Friday night decision deemed reckless. And in Branch's mind it was about two other things: Speed and respect.

"There were two very important factors," said Branch, in explaining why Liambas has essentially been banned for life from the Ontario Hockey League. "Distance travelled and the speed in which he was travelling.

"In our view, it was excessive speed. Somehow, some way, we have to get people to appreciate this, to understand respect. Michael suggested in his view it was not an illegal hit. But like most things, you can argue such points. The nature of the injury played a role in the decision. And given the situation, I had to consider what would be best."

There is much to be settled and certainly questioned in the wake of the tragic Fanelli injury. A 16-year-old with so bright a hockey future now has no idea what the future will be. That can never be understated no matter how you choose to interpret the circumstances of this dreadful collision. But the first stop for Branch, now that the decision on Liambas is made, is to consider why Fanelli's helmet flew off so rapidly upon contact.

He has spoken to the manufacturer, sent them a tape of the collision, spoken to the Kitchener trainers, and received confirmation that Fanelli had been fitted properly for his helmet and that it was strapped on tightly, according to league bylaws.

"That is one of the real vagaries we have at the moment," Branch said. "We want to know why this happened. We must pursue this and get some answers on it."

There is yet another hockey question here: What part does the elimination of defensive obstruction in the game have to do with Fanelli's vulnerability which led to him being hit so readily by Liambas. The removal of obstruction in hockey was supposed to be good for the game. That was the sell. And in many ways it has been. But how vulnerable are unprotected defencemen going back into their own end for the puck with forecheckers coming at them at full speed?

"Respect plays a part of that," Branch said. "We have to eliminate the lack of respect in this regard. During the lockout year, Colin Campbell and his group came up with ways of making the game better. And in many ways they have succeeded. But we've got to find a way to get hockey people together for a time to think and address some of the issues we see now, before a tragedy even worse than last Friday occurs."

There are never winners in these kinds of hockey stories. Just different brands of victims. This is a heartbreaking time for those who know and love Ben Fanelli and a heartbreaking time for those who know and care about Michael Liambas.

No one loves the game more than the lifer, Sherry Bassin, who had to pass on the suspension news yesterday to a kid he admires so much, telling him he was finished in the OHL.

"Am I surprised?" asked Bassin, sadly. "I have deep respect for Dave Branch's integrity, honesty and commitment to the betterment of our league. So I won't question his decision. My concern right now is for both young men. I don't want to understate our deep concern for Ben Fanelli. I feel that every minute of the day. One boy has been physically harmed. And one boy has been emotionally beaten up.

"I just wish none of this ever happened."

STEVE.SIMMONS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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