Questioning the Game…Again.
Every one of us has seen it before. And we will again.
You are on the highway and while there is traffic, the vehicles around you are moving at the speed limit. Suddenly, a car flies by you traveling 30 or 40 kilometers per hour faster than everyone else.
The driver moves to within inches of the car ahead of him, then changes lanes without a signal, cutting off the vehicle now behind him.
The pattern is repeated numerous times as they weave in and out of traffic and you now watch with equal parts of anger and fear swelling inside you.
You ease your foot from the accelerator, instinctively realizing there is danger ahead. Perhaps nothing happens and the reckless driver disappears into the distance.
But what if he miscalculates one of those lane changes and clips another car, sending it spinning off the road or into the path of an 18-wheeler. The horror is unfolding in front of your eyes. People are seriously injured. Perhaps worse.
The reckless driver didn’t mean to cause the accident. He had no axe to grind with the people in the other car. He didn’t even know them. No one would even suggest there was intent.
But in every civilized society, he will be held responsible. He will be charged and convicted, because he demonstrated a willful disregard for the safety of others. The punishment will be severe and those who merely read the account of the accident in the next day’s paper and certainly those who witnessed it will not offer a syllable in defense of the accused.
This past weekend, Mike Liambas of the Ontario League’s Erie Otters raced at full speed from the blue line and hit Ben Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers. The impact sent Fanelli’s head into the glass, causing his helmet to fly in the air. Like you, I have watched the video numerous times.
Unlike so many hockey hits that result in injury, Liambas did not leave his feet, he didn’t use his elbow and his stick was not involved in the play. Now make no mistake, this was not a legal hit. It was certainly charging, perhaps boarding, but it was not the kind of collision we are used to debating.
There is no evidence Liambas intended to injure his opponent. To the best of my knowledge, he had no axe to grind with Fanelli. I suspect he didn’t even know him. But in a civilized society he must be held responsible; his actions demonstrated a willful disregard for the safety of others.
Yet, this is hockey and so we have heard many syllables offered in the defense of the accused. We have heard what a nice kid he is…how he makes good grades in school and of the time he has spent doing “good deeds” in the community. These are the kinds of things that might well be taken into consideration at a sentencing hearing, but would have no relevance in the determination of guilt or innocence.
What we have heard little about was the fact this overage junior player had demonstrated few of the skills one associates with a player at this level. He had played 129 games with Erie, accumulating five goals and 13 points. Where the stats appear all too relevant are in his penalty totals: 361 minutes.
Undrafted players who have never generated more than five points in any one season but continue as overage players are clearly there for another reason.
Some have denied Liambas was a goon and I cannot dispute that assertion, having never seen him play. But numbers rarely lie. He was, at the very least, a tough guy. There was no doubt he knew what was expected of him, just as there can be no question his coach, GM, teammates and even the owner of the team knew.
I assume they never contemplated the risk before last Friday night and I doubt they have experienced an epiphany since.
I have said many times that what is wrong with hockey has nothing to do with those who play the game. They merely try to put into practice what they are taught and what is expected of them.
No, it is those who have established a culture within the game that is without consideration, concern or respect for those who wear a sweater of a different color who are responsible.
And while a 16-year-old…a kid…lies in a hospital bed with his future indeterminate they have the audacity to argue that David Branch’s yearlong suspension was too harsh.
They try telling us this was nothing more than another player “finishing the check.”
They insist that Liambas was “absent malice,” therefore he must not be condemned. They even attempt to turn the debate into an issue over whether or not a 16-year-old should be allowed to play with a 20-year-old.
Repeatedly over the past few days I have heard and read how this incident was merely “part of the game.” Well, those people are right. It is part of the game and that is exactly what is wrong.
Shame on all of them. Shame on them for their colossal and ceaseless stupidity.
They have forgotten Don Sanderson, just as they will quickly forget Ben Fanelli. Most of all, shame on them for that.
Bob McCown, author of the book McCown’s Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments, hosts PrimeTime Sports, the most listened to sports talk radio show in Canada. Reaching more than a million listeners each week McCown is known for his argumentative nature and acerbic demeanor. You can read more of McCown’s work at fadoo.ca.