Ontario League commissioner David Branch levied a full-season ban on Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters for his hit on Ben Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
David Branch has suspended other OHL players for the balance of their careers before, but they were all knuckle-dragging idiots who went so far out of the bounds of the rules that the decision to ban them was easy.
But his decision to suspend Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters for the rest of his overage season for a boarding infraction that threatens a young man’s career was far more excrutiating. He will be criticized and second-guessed by scores of people, but they’re not the ones who have to face the parents of a 16-year-old young man, in this case, Ben Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers, whose brain may never be the same again.
Branch gets it. He knows that this suspension, as severe as it is, won’t take these kinds of hits out of hockey. But unlike the NHL, Branch has drawn his line in the sand in stating unequivocally that these kinds of hits and all head shots regardless of whether there is malicious intent, will not be tolerated in his league.
Suspensions will help, but they alone won’t cure the problem, if there’s even a problem in the first place. What has to be addressed is the culture of the game and what people are willing to accept.
“People are saying, ‘Branch, you’re trying to take hitting out of the game,’ ” Branch said. “No, not at all, but the fact is we have to have some level of respect.”
I’m not sure I agree 100 percent with Branch that it’s a matter of a lack of respect. Opponents have hated each others’ guts for time immemorial and the long history of hockey is littered with acts far more heinous than Liambas’ hit on Fanelli, so I’m not convinced it’s a matter of respect.
But there is little doubt that something has changed over the past decade. Whether it’s the size of the players or the equipment or the fact there is more speed in the game than ever before, players are getting hurt at an alarming rate on what many hockey people honestly believe are clean hits. In the minds of many people, players such as Colby Armstrong in the NHL and Liambas in junior hockey are simply doing what they’ve been told by coaches since they were allowed to begin hitting.
Finish your check. And if there are three words in hockey that have created more ambiguity over the past decade, please let us know what they are. In handing down his suspension, Branch said Liambas thought the hit was a legal one, but Branch wasn’t arguing the technical application of the hit. What concerned him was the distance travelled to make the hit and the speed at which Liambas was going when the hit was applied.
“That came up in our discussion during Michael’s hearing,” Branch said. “I said to him, “OK, Michael, you’ve been taught to finish your check. But then I said to him, ‘When your coach tells you to cover a guy, do you take a blanket out with you?’ What exactly does finish your check mean?”
Bingo. At some point in the near future, the stakeholders in this game are going to have to answer that very question. In fact, I would argue hockey has come to a very serious crossroads here and there are no easy answers.
People who run this game at the highest level are going to have to determine exactly what tolerance level they’re going to have for this kind of contact. Branch has already decided what his level of tolerance is and, whether or not you agree or disagree with him, at least everyone knows where he stands. And you can bet any player in the OHL is going to have at least a half a second of sober second thought when he has a vulnerable opponent lined up for a big hit along the boards. Will that make the game less physical? I doubt it, but I can certainly appreciate the opinion of those who think it will.
Perhaps the league will decide to do nothing and live with the consequences of players getting hurt seriously. Those who run the game are loathe to implement a blanket head shot rule for fear it will prompt players to leave themselves vulnerable on purpose in order to draw penalties.
It will not be an easy decision. Just ask Branch. But the NHL owes it to its players and to the game to come to a conclusion on what constitutes a clean hit and which ones should be suspended.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.