There is no question that Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch's decision to suspend Michael Liambas for his hit on Ben Fanelli for the rest of the OHL regular season and playoffs is remarkably harsh.
I would submit, though, that it is, in a sense, also courageous in nature.
Not many people within the hockey establishment will agree with that assertion. Fair enough, everyone has their own perspective and the conventional hockey culture wisdom is as follows: As long a hockey player uses his shoulder, keeps his feet on the ground and doesn't blatantly hit an opposing player from behind, the hitter is encouraged to travel as fast as he can as far as he needs to in order to hit a player as hard as he can.
Many would suggest that is the very essence of the game.
Except in this case Branch, and the referees working the Kitchener Rangers-Erie Otters' game on Saturday night, decided that a foul was indeed committed by Liambis. It was, in the eyes of the OHL, deemed to be a dangerous cross between charging and boarding with tragic consequences. Fanelli is in serious but stable condition in a Hamilton hospital with a fractured skull and broken orbital bone and facial laceration. While it is somewhat encouraging that Fanelli has gone from critical but stable condition to serious but stable, we still have no real prognosis for Fanelli's future, both in terms of the young boy's quality of life, never mind whether he'll ever play the game again.
Many would say there was no significant evidence of malice on the part of Liambas, that hockey is a physical, often dangerous game and while Fanelli's injuries are nothing short of tragic, bad things sometimes happen to good people and it is all part of the inherent risk of playing the world's fastest, most physical team sport.
All of that is, to varying degrees, true of our favorite sport.
But Branch is obviously trying to send a message here, though as one NHL team executive wondered out loud today, what precisely is that message?
A cynic would suggest Branch has taken the first step towards eliminating hitting from the game.
For me, though, it's a statement that the way the game is being played now needs to change, or at least be intensely re-examined.
Hitting has always been part of the game and hopefully it always will be, but make no mistake, the type of hitting we are seeing in all hockey leagues with increasing frequency is unlike anything that has gone on in the hockey I've been watching in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and to some degree in the 1990s too. The game we are watching today, whether it's in the OHL or the NHL, changed massively coming out of the lockout in 2004. With each passing year the game has become faster and faster, the hitting harder and harder. Players are regularly hit more violently into the boards yet many nights, a simple boarding penalty is nowhere to be found.
Virtually all of the obstruction and restraining fouls have been taken out of the game, giving the players – bigger, stronger and faster than ever – a game with no speed limits and no speed bumps.
I firmly believe a hit like the one Liambas laid on Fanelli never would have taken place in the pre-lockout years. Fanelli's defence parter or a forward would have impeded Liambas from taking such direct line at breakneck speed to hit Fanelli. Now, though, the game is all about transition. As soon as Fanelli took possession of the puck, every player on his team was focused on getting in motion and beginning the attack.
Now, I am not advocating we go back to a type of play where attacking forwards are clutched and grabbed and preventing from getting in on the forecheck. The game is as good as it is now in large part because those forwards are free to pressure the other team. But for anyone to suggest there isn't a dramatic increase in the number of potentially catastrophic hits – remember, Newton's Second Law, force equals mass x acceleration – is living in a fantasy world. The injuries, many of them to the head, are not figments of someone's imagination.
Bob Clarke, the former Philadelphia Flyer great, was on 'Off The Record' on TSN today and said with the NHL rules as they currently exist, he wouldn't want to be a player in today's NHL because it's "too dangerous."
Bob Clarke? Too dangerous? That's astonishing.
It's one thing for a non-playing media person to make that assertion, quite another coming from a Hall of Famer of Broad Street Bully fame.
There's a reason why players are getting their brains scrambled at an astonishing rate. There's a reason why so many players are currently injured. It's because the game is being played so differently. It's like Ottawa GM Bryan Murray mused the other day when he said maybe, just maybe, the game is almost too fast now. The hockey traditionalists who claim hitting has always been part of the game and get their backs up because someone dares to question the culture of the game and its acceptance of the status quo don't seem to get the seismic shift that has occurred. And the by-product is an alarming quantity and quality of serious injury.
So I think what Branch was saying – and I realize many will brand this hockey heresy – is that a player must think and make a judgment call before he delivers what could be a catastrophic blow. Hey, we're never going to eradicate injury from the game. And some of them may be serious injuries and all that is understood. It's an inherently dangerous game – always has been; always will be, to some degree.
But we need to make some adjustments. Too many hits have become nuclear in nature. There at least needs to be a discussion on how to limit the fallout.
And Branch's decision, harsh as it may be, is the catalyst to do exactly that.
There's another point that needs to be made here, too.
Branch oversees a junior hockey league. It's not the NHL. It's not professional hockey although the players there are desperately trying to get to pro hockey. The vast majority of the players who play in the OHL will not make their living at the game. The NHL is a different kettle of fish entirely yet there's little desire to admit that. Most fans simply think of it all as hockey and subject it to the same sensibilities. Well, they shouldn't.
Kids playing junior hockey deserve a somewhat safer environment than that. And I think Branch, better than anyone, understands that.
That's why in the past he's been lightning quick to react to specific instances that most fans simply write off as a part of the game.
A player gets his throat cut by a skate blade. Within days, Branch has OHL players wearing mandatory neck guards.
Concussion issues? The OHL is the only one of the three Canadian major junior leagues to have a head-checking penalty.
Senior 'A' player Don Sanderson dies in a hockey fight when his helmet comes off and the OHL immediately institutes a rule about keeping helmets on in fights.
Branch has historically acted swiftly and decisively on these safety issues and received a storm of criticism from hockey traditionalists who feel he's messing with the fabric of the game, that's he's a dangerous subversive who overreacts to unavoidable misfortune.
But Branch has been undaunted through it all and today's Liambas decision reinforces that. As the commissioner of the OHL, he has three constituencies he must serve. One is the players, and their parents, who make a conscious decision to play in the OHL. Two is the fan base who buys tickets and drives the economy of the OHL. And three are the OHL owners who are effectively Branch's bosses. If Branch fails his first two constituencies, the third would not hesitate to cut him loose. But the fact is the OHL is thriving on so many levels.
The easiest thing in the world for Branch would have been to suspend Liambas for 5 or 10 or 20 or even 30 games. There would have been a reaction but not like this. But Branch obviously felt strongly and that he needed to take it to a level many hockey people cannot even comprehend.
All I know about Branch is that he has done this job for a long time – more than 25 years - and done it exceptionally well. He has integrity and he has served his constituents – the players and their parents, the fans and the owners – extremely well. He knows his league, he knows his constituents and as adverse as the reaction to his decision may be, his track record suggests he has a highly-defined sense of right and wrong and is unafraid to do what he thinks is right for the best interest of the league.
Attendance, profit, player development and ability to attract players of all stripes to play in the OHL suggest he's been on the right track. Could the Liambas decision be his undoing? Branch's constituents will ultimately decide that but if history is any indication, this ruling will be no different than any of the controversial calls Branch made in the past.
I'm not saying Branch's decision to suspend Liambas for a whole season isn't fraught with peril. There will be questions about consistency, whether a 20-year old tough guy such as Liambas, with marginal point totals and significant penalty minutes, was too easy a target and what will happen if a star player makes the same sort of hit. Personally, I would rather have seen Branch suspend Liambas for a lesser time – 20 or 30 or 40 games still would have sent the same message – as I fear this equivalent of a junior hockey life sentence almost gets lost in the sheer severity of the suspension.
Now, all anyone is talking about is the length of the suspension, not so much about the hit that caused it.
But what's done is done.
Make no mistake; there should be no celebration here. There are no winners. There's a 16-year old kid in a Hamilton hospital and he's in a real bad way and no one knows for sure what his future holds. As for Liambas, he isn't the devil. He is, by all accounts, a good kid, a bright student, a good teammate and a solid member of his community. He is unquestionably distressed and distraught over what has happened because it was never his intent. In his own way, he's a victim too, though no one should equate that to what Fanelli is experiencing. Let's hope Liambas is able to work his way through this and as disappointing as losing his final season of junior eligibility may be, if he chooses to continue playing the game he will have some options to do that. And let us pray that Ben Fanelli recovers and can become whole again.
So now, as best we all can, it's time to move forward. The good, if there's to be any of that from this sad situation, is to at least engage in the dialogue on how the post-lockout game is played and whether, at the junior hockey level in particular but also at the NHL, there needs to be any adjustments made to mitigate the potential for catastrophic injuries.
The players who play this game deserve at least that. They're worth it.