Hockey Headlines

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Done In The OHL

Michael Liambas, pictured to the left, is now a former player for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. I say "former" because OHL Commissioner David Branch came down hard on Liambas for his hit on Kitchener Rangers rookie Ben Fanelli. Liambas was suspended for the remainder of the season and for the entire playoffs for his hit on Fanelli on October 30 that sent the 16 year-old to the hospital with skull and facial fractures. The 20 year-old Liambas, being an over-aged player already, has had his career ended on a play that was unnecessary unless you're a big fan of late hits. The reason for his shortened season, according to David Branch, was due to his lack of respect for Fanelli and the distance he traveled to throw the hit.

"Players must understand they shall be held accountable for their actions," OHL commissioner David Branch said in a statement. "We must all work towards improving the level of respect players have towards opposing players and the game in general."

This is what I was speaking about on Monday when I suggested that we, the fans, might be a large part of the problem. David Branch recognizes that players in these developmental leagues need a chance to make it to the next level, and that there is a respect factor involved when it comes to everyone helping each other be better.

The end result of that hit was that Fanelli's visor was cracked, and his helmet - Branch was told by Kitchener staff that Fanelli had it securely fastened - popped off his head. The impact with the boards and ice were major factors in the skull and facial fractures that have lead to Fanelli's extended hospital stay. As it stands right now, his season is over as he remains in hospital in serious but stable condition.

Branch, in his statement, suggested that Liambas' character was not to blame in this situation, and I really believe that Liambas was only doing what he was told to do by his coaches, most notably head coach Robbie Ftorek: create some energy, and finish your checks.

"Michael is a bright and articulate man and he certainly represented himself very well," Branch said of Liambas. "But any issues that Michael is facing pale in comparison to what, unfortunately, Ben and his family are going through."

He continued, "In our minds, the most concerning thing about the hit was the distance travelled and the speed. It then resulted in injury... and the injury was the most concerning, no question."

And there's the key: Branch has become less of an administrator in times like this, and more like a parent looking out for all his kids playing in the OHL. That is exactly the kind of sentiment I would hope to hear from all presidents and commissioners of all developmental leagues when it comes to offering the best chance to move to the next level of hockey.

Player safety and security are the most paramount thing in David Branch's mind. It's the reason why visors and neck guards are mandatory in the OHL. It's the reason why head checks are penalized in the OHL. It's the reason why hits from behind are severely punished in the OHL. Branch ensures that every player who steps on a sheet of ice in the OHL has the best chance possible of becoming a hockey player at the next level of hockey.

Was the decision to suspend Michael Liambas extremely harsh? Yes, it was. Some will say that the hit was clean, and that Fanelli's injuries are the result of unfortunate circumstances. Some will say that discouraging hits like these - legal by the definition of hitting, but borderline in good judgment - takes away from the excitement of the game and makes it more into figure skating or women's hockey. Others will simply say that sometimes bad things happen to good players, and that by punishing Liambas for a "hockey play" that happens hundreds of times per game will ruin the game of hockey.

Where David Branch sees the problem is that Liambas skated in from the blueline, gaining speed while traveling, and threw a bodycheck on a vulnerable Fanelli while he didn't have the puck and was off the boards. This charging-boarding play committed by Liambas that caused significant injury to the young Fanelli is the entire reason why David Branch is ensuring that he'll be watching from the stands for the rest of the season.

It may appear that Branch is trying to remove hitting from his league by cracking down hard on Liambas. I think he's simply trying to make players respect one another on the ice in a world where violence and speed often are endorsed. Speed has been increased thanks to the rule changes coming out of the work stoppage in 2005, and defensive players are no longer allowed to slow up on-coming forecheckers as they press into the zone. Liambas would be one of those forecheckers, and he did what he has been taught: finish your check, create a turnover.

Bobby Clarke, a man known for his tenacity on the ice, said on TSN's Off The Record that he wouldn't want to play the game today with the way that players are flying into one another. He called today's game "too dangerous". For the leader of the Broad Street Bullies to make that claim, you know that there has to be something wrong with how hockey is being played today.

Was the suspension too harsh? Most will say "yes". Most will say that 20 or 25 games would send the message that this kind of hit is not going to be tolerated. When asked at the media scrum after the statement was made why a 25-game suspension wasn't handed down, Branch responded, "How does 25 games line up with Ben Fanelli not playing again this year?"

If there is anything that David Branch is, he is the most consistent Commissioner in hockey today when it comes to handing out punishment for what he considers to be unsafe play. When he says that his league will not tolerate something, he makes sure that everyone realizes that he's serious about this belief.

When Branch says that he wants to ensure that every single player in the OHL has a shot at making the NHL, he's not just talking about skill sets and hockey fundamentals. He's talking about providing a safe environment where kids can get better at the game of hockey without fearing for their lives. This is the same belief we have about our school systems: a safe environment where children can maximize their potential before moving on to bigger stages in life. This speaks volumes to the "respect factor" that I have been pounding the drum on.

As an administrator, isn't David Branch the kind of guy you want when sending your child to his school? Isn't this the kind of guy you want preparing your kids for the next stage of their lives?

"I would say without question the injury played a factor," Branch told Mike Brophy of Sportsnet.ca. "Without question. The two driving points from our perspective is, players must understand they will be held accountable for their actions. A lot of them play the game on the edge, as they say. As well, we all must work together to improve the level of respect that we have in our game."

I feel bad for Liambas in all this because he was doing what he was told. Sometimes, though, what's right is not always popular. David Branch knows this, and he's telling everyone in the OHL this same message. Anyone can throw a massive bodycheck on a vulnerable player, but it takes a smarter, better player to realize when and how to throw that check safely. And it certainly takes more respect for your opponent.

"I tried to draw an analogy with Michael Liambas at the hearing yesterday," Branch explained to Mike Brophy of Sportsnet, "that you can drive down a side street at 60 kilometers per hour in a speed of 60 kilometers per hour and if a youngster runs out in front of your vehicle and you hit that child, chances are people will say the child didn't look both ways. But if you're driving down that street at 90 or 100 kilometers per hour chances are you are at fault. We have got to get a perspective. In the purest sense nobody is saying the hit was illegal, but it is our opinion the distance he traveled and the speed at which he chose to travel at did not demonstrate sufficient respect. If there is an injury then you are going to be held accountable."

Isn't that the most important lesson about checking? Good coaches tell you that a well-timed, clean check can significantly alter the momentum of the game. Scott Stevens knew this. Larry Robinson knew this. Denis Potvin knew this. All three men were highly respectful of other players in that they never once were penalized for a check from behind. Stevens, the most feared hitter of this generation, finished his career with only four elbowing penalties. These men were all about respecting their opponents.

David Branch is also all about respecting your opponent, and he's working to teach the OHL players about this respect. Even if it means some players have to be removed from the classroom setting. After all, what's popular isn't always right, and what's right isn't always popular. In my view, David Branch lives and breathes the latter part of that statement.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

3 comments:

Shane Giroux said...

Excellent article, Teebz. Completely agree with everything said.

Morgan said...

A well balanced post. My two cents is that the full year suspension is waranted in a league where 16 year olds play against 20 year olds. There is a huge height and weight difference between most 16 year olds and most 20 year olds. These are kids and they need protecting.

I am wondering how Robbie Ftorek is handling all this. Back when he coached the New Jersey Devils he went ballistic when Jay Pandolfo was drilled into the boards from behind and no penalty was called. This lead to his infamous tossing the bench on the ice tirade. Now that he is the coach on the other end of something like this, is he accepting Branch's ruling?

Teebz said...

Thanks to both of you!

Personally, there are a number of people in the media who are asking the same question, and I, for one, would like an answer as to why the NHL refuses to acknowledge the devastation in these kinds of hits.