Friday, November 06, 2009

The game we want, or the game we have?

Kitchener Ranger defenceman Ben Fanelli continues to recover in a Hamilton hospital, his status of serious but stable unchanged from Tuesday, but slightly better than the critical advisory that was issued upon his first arrival over the weekend.

He was airlifted to the Hamilton hospital following an incident in Friday nights game between the Kitchener Rangers and the Erie Otters, a horrifying moment for hockey which saw him suffer skull and facial fractures when he was checked into the end boards during a game against the Erie Otters.

Earlier this week, the man who delivered that check, Michael Liambas, was suspended for the season and the playoffs and as an over aged junior, it also means that Liambas who will be 21 in February has effectively played his last game of Junior hockey.

CHL Commisioner David Branch was quick to render his verdict, expressing a concern over the lack of respect on the ice of today and the need to remind his players of the importance of that respect for the good of their game.

There may be some work ahead on that front, as many incidents over the last few years have shown that respect is in short supply.

The check, has once again opened up the debate over just how much hitting is required for a hockey game and whether players today show enough of that respect for each other that Mr. Branch is looking for.

The check in question used the boards as a weapon almost, an ongoing circumstance in both the professional and junior ranks, where fast propelling bodies are launching themselves into other players, sandwiching them against the unmovable object which is the boards.

In most cases the effect is the crushing bodycheck, loud in volume, sometimes painful and occasionally one which can sideline a player for weeks or months.

Last Friday night it almost did the job permanently.

The problem is that sometimes these checks are delivered with little reason, the play has long moved on, the recipient no longer part of the action. More often than not, they are designed more to send a message of intimidation, rather than offer up any form of defensive or offensive strategy.

In the case of Mr. Liambis a quick scan of his hockey history shows that he's well versed in the penalties in minutes category in a four year career in the OHL he had amassed 346 penaly minutes, while his offensive exploits with but 5 goals and six assists in those four years, could probably be summarized on an 4 x 8 inch index card, leaving room to spare.

Type in his name into a YouTube search engine and you find a collection of hockey fights and similar style of body checks (and some worse) as the one delivered on Friday, all of which seems to offer up insight into what it is he brings to a hockey club, suffice to say he's not there for the play making.

That is more an indictment of the league than the player however, as clearly the OHL (as well as the WHL, QMHJL and NHL for that matter) has found room for that particular talent, Mr. Liambas no doubt was only providing the service expected of him and as defined by management.

The placement of him and other over age juniors on the rosters of the OHL and other leagues is of equal concern for league officials, fans and parents. Junior hockey's wide age discrepancy and with it the clearly changing body dynamics that are at work is clearly something that needs to be examined.

As mentioned earlier Mr. Liambas is to turn 21 early next year, Mr. Fanelli is but 16, turning 17 in March of 2010, how the OHL can reconcile this gap is still a mystery to many.

The simple fact is that Junior hockey perhaps is a game that has too wide a catchment, the physical pounding taken by a 16 year old, as administered by someone in their twenties borders beyond the uncomfortable and should be addressed.

At some point there needs to be a more reasonable break in the roster construction, moving the older, stronger and larger bodies of the upper age brackets on into either a new level of hockey, (Senior perhaps) allowing the players still in their mid teens to play the game without fear of permanent injury or worse.

Rule changes as well might provide some level of safety for the players, a buffer zone along the boards could possibly remove the ability to use them as the finishing touch on the check, while still leaving the physical nature of the game to the open ice zones. Body checking wouldn't disappear it just wouldn't be used in the same intimidating way that it seems to have evolved into.

Without some kind of change in the dynamic of the constant hitting for the sake of hitting, the game may soon begin to suffer. If you're a parent today, you have to ask yourself, do you really want to subject your child to that level of intimidation on a nightly basis, in a game that is supposed to be fun, there surely can't be much of it left when you spend most of the night wondering when you're going to be left laid out on the ice.

How many players may decide to leave the game owing to the increasingly violent and at times needless physical battering that they take in the course of a game. Physical play has always been a part of the game and most wouldn't want to see it taken out, but far too often now there are more and more incidents where physical play has evolved into something much more sinister.

If you're a parent today, you're sparing a thought for the parents of Ben Fanelli, who surely must be thinking about whether the adventure that they and their son embarked on this year, engaged in the pursuit of a game he loved at one of the highest levels , is worth the result of Friday night.

Kitchener Record-- Ben Fanelli moved from intensive care
Toronto Star-- OHL player's season over after devastating hit
Toronto Star-- The hit that rocked hockey
CBC Sports-- Liambas suspension harsh, but did the OHL get it right?
CBC Sports-- Junior hockey player's condition improves
Sun Media-- Suspended for season

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