Ben Fanelli doesn’t remember the night he almost died on the ice.
He was a 16-year-old defenseman with the Kitchener Rangers when he went behind his net to retrieve a puck midway through a tilt against the Erie Otters on Oct. 30, 2009. It was his seventh game in the OHL, and it would be almost two years before he’d play another.
A charging Mike Liambas of the Otters slammed him into the boards with such force that it knocked Fanelli out cold and left him in a pool of blood. (Liambas was suspended for the rest of the season.) The impact broke Fanelli’s helmet and his head struck the partition in the glass. He was rushed to hospital in serious condition. He had a fractured skull and his brain was bleeding in three places.
Nine years later, and living in nearby Waterloo, Ont., Fanelli still doesn’t remember anything from the hit, or even the day for that matter. He doesn’t remember the puck drop. He doesn’t remember going behind the net. The last memory he has is stepping onto the bus the night before following a game in Brampton. Then, it’s waking up in the hospital. Doctors said he was lucky to be alive and that he might never play sports again. He was told he might not even be the same person he was before the hit. “That was probably the only time in a long time that hockey didn’t matter,” Fanelli said. “That week in hospital and the first month after was the first time it didn’t matter. It was more about surviving.”
Yet Fanelli did more than survive. Inspired by Lance Armstrong’s story of overcoming cancer, combined with his own experience helping students with learning disabilities, Fanelli vowed to return to the ice. He did just that, and more.
In June 2011, Fanelli completed his first triathlon and cycled with Armstrong during a stop to the Waterloo area that summer. A few months later, he returned to the Rangers for 2011-12. “In all honesty, that first game back was unbelievable,” he said. “It felt so surreal.”
Fanelli became an alternate captain in 2012 and was captain for his final season in 2013-14. Now, almost five years removed from OHL hockey, Fanelli is using his own story to bring other tales of trauma to light.
In January 2018, Fanelli launched a podcast series called HeroicMinds in which he chats with guests from all walks of life – athletes, first responders, doctors, researchers, ex-soldiers – about their personal struggles and the obstacles they’ve overcome. That list includes former NHLer Marc Savard, whose own career ended because of head injuries; NHLers Gabriel Landeskog and Mark Scheifele; paralympic gold medallist Brenna Huckaby, who lost her leg at 14 to cancer; and Olympian Heather Moyse.
HeroicMinds started on a whim after a friend suggested he give it a shot. Within a few days, Fanelli had a microphone and installed audio-mixing software onto his laptop.
Podcasting presented a steep learning curve for Fanelli, but he relished the challenge. He started with a list of interview subjects, gathered through youth hockey contacts, but he was worried how the show would fare after he got through them all. As the podcast grew and word got around, that list expanded. “There are too many incredible people who haven’t gotten their story out, and I didn’t know that at first,” Fanelli said. “You forget that everyone is going through something.”
HeroicMinds has grown to more than 40 shows and 7,000 listeners each month. He has also partnered with the Rangers to establish Head Strong, an initiative to raise awareness about brain injuries, and he is one of the founders of the EMPWR Foundation, a charity that helps athletes recover from concussions and head injuries.
Fanelli is a fixture on the local public-speaking circuit and uses his own story along with those from his podcast to inspire youth to make the most of their lives and stare down adversity. “People say, ‘Even if it helps one person, that’s enough,’ ” Fanelli said. “The reality is that’s how change is made.”
Now 25, Fanelli wrapped up a communications degree at Wilfrid Laurier and is an assistant coach with the University of Waterloo men’s team. Aside from coaching and the odd shinny match, he doesn’t get on the ice much anymore. Living through his own story, he remembers what’s really important from his playing days. “The life lessons and friendships,” he said. “That’s what you miss.”
This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.