Sports Hockey

Accidents will happen in contact sports 0

IAN SHANTZ

Start passing out the bubble wrap. Maybe some swift inventor can come up with some kind of personal encasement players can wear while they're on the ice.

That's the only way you'll ever prevent accidents, incidents, circumstances, unfortunate scenarios -- whatever the buzzword is these days -- from happening in the game called hockey.

Throwing a junior career-ending suspension out there -- as David Branch did earlier this week -- won't prevent anything in the long haul.

It sends a message that violence in hockey will not be tolerated.

But, however severe, it's only a message, and these kinds of messages have never stopped a player -- at any level of the game -- from making a split-second decision -- wise or unwise -- on the ice. And this kind of fierce whip-cracking can't change the certainty that injuries of every shape and size will be a part of hockey until the end of time.

Ben Fanelli, a 16-year-old rookie defenceman with the Kitchener Rangers, remains in a Hamilton hospital in serious, but stable condition.

He wound up there courtesy of a hit inflicted by Erie Otters overage forward Michael Liambas -- a so-called thug and multiple offender -- during an Oct. 30 game.

Fanelli is in our prayers.

Liambas, 20, received a match penalty for charging, and Branch, the Ontario Hockey League's commissioner, kicked him out of his league for good on Wednesday.

Liambas should be in our thoughts, as well.

But just as one player fights for his life and another wrestles with the reality of a dramatic turn of events that might have spelled the end to his professional hockey aspirations, so too should we look at this unfortunate incident in a rational light.

There have been ugly marks in hockey before. There will be ugly marks in hockey again.

Try as we may, we can't change the nature of the beast.

Suspending a player won't magically stop injuries from happening in a game full of potentially dangerous situations. All we can hope for is that it's a wake-up call that isn't forgotten about two weeks from now.

"Hitting is part of the game, and things can happen like that," Barrie Colts 18-year-old forward Alex Hutchings said yesterday. "You've just got to look out for it. You've just got to be aware of everybody on the ice."

Hutchings, a five-foot-10, 179-pound pinball, is two pounds heavier than Fanelli. Liambas weighs in at a rugged 200 pounds.

"The guy that's five-foot-six can hit a guy that's six-foot-four just as hard if they're not looking," Hutchings said. "Stuff like this happens. You just have to kind of let it go."

Colts forward Kyle Clifford is built like a Mack truck. He weighs 200 pounds and stands six feet tall. The 18-year-old Los Angeles Kings draft pick nearly stuck with the NHL squad at the beginning of the year.

He was just about qualified to play against 35-year-olds, and now he's going into the corners against 16-year-olds.

"There are different ages out there, and there are bigger guys and younger guys," Clifford said. "But I treat every player the same way, whether he's 16 or 21 years old.

"We've got to play hard, but you've got to know your limits and play fair."

So debate the intricacies of the Liambas hit all you want. Cheap? Maybe. Violent and uncalled for? Perhaps. Clean? Possibly. Accidental? Define accidental in hockey and you're probably a psychic.

Just know that, despite the heartbreak and sorrow that a single, split-second hockey decision has brought forth, these things do happen.

They aren't planned, they aren't deliberate, they aren't encouraged and, thankfully, they aren't every-day occurrences. But they happen.

"There's always going to be those little freak accidents," said Clifford, who had his wrist run over by a referee's skate blade last season.

"They're part of the game, and all the players know that those things come with the game.

"We just have to look for ways to keep safe," the forward added. "But you can't go out there wearing bubble wrap."

So you just try to learn from situations such as this.

"It's a message, and we talked to our players out it," said Barrie head coach Marty Williamson, who supports Branch's ruling. "Don't do careless things.

"(Physical players) under- stand that there's not that need to put a kid in the hospital," the coach added.

"There's a need to make a hit and cause a turnover. There's a big difference between the two."

But these things can, do, and will continue to happen, regardless of intent.

If you want to stop it, bring out the bubble wrap.

ishantz@thebarrieexaminer.com


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