Ben Fanelli and those around him decided after much deliberation to return to hockey in late August. He tweeted this inspirational message back then on his Twitter account @BF4HeadStrong : "If you give up , where's the next guy going to find his inspiration?"
The 18-year-old Fanelli truly has been an inspiration to family, friends, fans and teammates. He's 13 games into his comeback with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL and couldn't be more pleased with his progress.
It was two years ago, Rangers trainer Dan Lebold and other medical personnel frantically attended to Fanelli, who laid motionless in a pool of his own blood on the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium ice. Moments before the defenceman had his head slammed into a stanchion behind the Rangers net by Erie Otters forward Michael Liambas.
Fanelli's helmet flew off his head on impact and he crashed to the ice. There were fears whether the Rangers 16-year-old rookie would live. He was taken to hospital with skull fractures and severe head trauma, but remarkably after a week in intensive care he was allowed to return to his family's Oakville, Ont. home.
A full recovery, however, was uncertain, let alone a resumption of his hockey career. But here he is two years and two days rediscovering his game with the Rangers.
"I think it started to feel better just before I left the hospital," Fanelli said. "I was sitting in my hospital bed with foam beads on my head, just seconds away from brain surgery. Then the results from a CAT scan came back and showed that things were clearing up. All of a sudden I wasn't going to need brain surgery.
"If I had to undergo brain surgery there would have been no chance that I would have played sports of any kind. After that, on the drive home, I felt there was a chance I could play again. I just didn't know how much work I had ahead of me.
"I feel blessed. It was quite the roller coaster after that with the training, all the visits to the doctors. It was quite the mental battle, too, being away from the game that has been the centre of my life."
In late August, Fanelli sat down with his parents, his agent, the Rangers coaching and medical staff. They decided as a group to give hockey another shot. He had played some light contact hockey once a week in the summer and felt grand.
Back in October 2009, he was seven games into his rookie season when hockey was taken away from him. When Fanelli felt well enough after the incident he began showing up at home games and tagging along with his teammates to some road games. He always thought he would be back playing alongside them.
It was a devastating blow when the decision was made by those monitoring his case that he wasn't ready to play last year. On Mondays and Tuesdays, he would participate for the first 8-10 minutes in the non-contact drills and then while the rest of the Rangers continued to practice Fanelli would head to the gym.
Increasingly, it became more and more difficult to be around his junior team because he was not cleared to play. So some days he would text his coaches that was going to stay away from the rink. Instead, he would swim for a couple hours at a local pool or workout on his own or study extra long that day.
"I did anything to keep my mind off it," said Fanelli, who is in his first-year of the business program at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. "I became interested in business. Ultimately, the struggle and the year off has made me a better person."
Last March, Fanelli started Head Strong, a program to raise awareness about brain injuries. As part of this pursuit, he competed in the Milton Triathlon last June.
Back on the ice this season, the young defenceman has been employed on the Rangers third pairing for the most part. Sometimes he gets elevated on the depth chart and occasionally he sees time on the penalty kill.
He has taken baby steps in his return and as he reviewed his progress over the past 24 months, he wondered where he would be without his mother Sue and father Frank.
"They have been unbelievable, especially my Mom," Fanelli said. "I don't know how she found the power to support me through this. She has hated hockey since I was eight years old when I started to play hockey. So what happened did not help at all.
"She doesn't like the contact of the game. This has been a process for her, too. The first four or five games of my comeback she would stay out in the lobby talking to the ticket people or others from the Rangers committee, but peak into to watch a shift or two. Now she has been able to sit through entire games.
"She still worries like a mother is supposed to worry, but it's been awesome to have her there."
Does the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Fanelli worry about his hockey future? After all, his career stalled during two prime development years. Nope. He has a remarkable perspective despite what happened to him.
He has a mature outlook on what's next. He has the rest of the this season as well as next year, and maybe even the following season as an overager to continue to develop. He preaches patience, which is not easy for the self-confessed type-A personality.
"There still is a long road ahead of where I want to be," he said. "I know that. The coaches know that. Initially, there were some bumps in the road coming back.
"I have a go-go-go-personality. I want to be playing at 120 percent potential wise and energy wise. But I've had to sit back a little and let the game come to me in order understand the game the way I used to.
"I'm getting there. I feel it and the coaches do, too. But there is still lots of work to do and that's part of the comeback, too."
Whatever happened to Michael Liambus?
Former Otters overager Liambus was banned from the OHL for his violent hit on Fanelli two years ago. According to Fanelli the two have never talked and he doesn't want to hear from Liambus now.
Liambus, 22, plays for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. After OHL commissioner David Branch banished Liambus for the rest of the 2009-10 season, the latter finished that year with a 17-game stint for the Bloomington Prairie Thunder of the IHL.
Last season, he played 25 games for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, but left after he was suspended for two games for sucker-punching an Alberta player. He finished last season in the ECHL in Cincinnati.
Back to accessibility links