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THN.com Blog: Don't blame the game, blame the player

Kitchener Rangers defensman Ben Fanelli had a single assist in seven games with the Rangers this season (Photo courtesy of KitchenerRangers.com)

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Kitchener Rangers defensman Ben Fanelli had a single assist in seven games with the Rangers this season (Photo courtesy of KitchenerRangers.com)

A lot of furious typing and screeching will come out of the media machine thanks to Michael Liambas’ hit on young Ben Fanelli on the weekend. If you haven’t seen it, 20-year-old Liambas, who plays for the Ontario League’s Erie Otters, swoops in on a dump-in being collected by 16-year-old Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers.

Liambas finds his target, crushing Fanelli into the endboards. Fanelli’s helmet reportedly exploded on impact and he hit his head on the metal stanchion connecting the glass. He sustained a fractured skull and multiple facial fractures. It’s a brutal event to witness.

A lot has to go wrong for something so violent to happen and anytime it does, the call comes out from across the landscape for rule changes and inward reflection. But what could be done?

The play by Liambas was illegal. He revved up from about the blueline and hunted Fanelli down. That’s charging. It’s a penalty and not a difficult one to detect. In my opinion, the issue is closed right there.

Was there something wrong with Fanelli’s helmet that caused it to fail? I doubt anything could be proven either way at this point and the tightness of the defenseman’s chinstrap may also have been a factor.

What about the issue of a 20-year-old playing in the same league as a 16-year-old? Liambas outweighs Fanelli by about 25 pounds, which is not a huge discrepancy, but the Erie enforcer (he has 13 points and 357 PIMs in his OHL career) has already played against men in a brief stint with the International League’s Bloomington Prairie Thunder.

You can’t say Fanelli was too young for the league because players like John Tavares and Jason Spezza thrived at younger ages. And maybe you can make the argument 20-year-olds shouldn’t be playing junior hockey, but then you get the cases where players miss entire seasons to injury and don’t have the chance to grow before heading on to the pro game. And incidentally, are we not in the same boat when a 20-year-old is mandated to play against competition 10 to 15 years older in the American League?

I wish there was an easy answer to this incident. I wish the Kitchener Rangers didn’t have to form a prayer circle on the ice after watching their rookie teammate get incapacitated before their eyes.

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If anything, I would ask Liambas to look at how he has conducted himself during his hockey career to date. In searching YouTube for the Fanelli hit, I also watched Liambas’ hit from behind on Tavares last season. It’s a bad hit and one Liambas had time to avoid, but the incredulous thing is that when no London Knight goes after Liambas, he seeks one of them out for a fight.

It’s not the only hit from behind you’ll find of the Otter on the site and in other video compilations he often tries to get in one more punch when an opponent is already down.

At just 5-foot-9 (but 204 pounds), Liambas clearly has had to prove his toughness in the OHL and based on his fighting resume, we all know why he is still in the league. The left winger is reportedly devastated by what happened to Fanelli as a result of his actions – Fanelli is in critical, but stable condition in hospital – but no matter what any of our thoughts are on head shots, fighting in hockey, hard plastic elbow pads, etc., the only person who can truly do anything to prevent an injury in this case is Liambas.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays. 

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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