Severity of injury big factor in OHL ruling

In suspending forward Michael Liambas for the remainder of the regular season, Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch says "you cannot lose sight what has happened here to the other player."

Commissioner Branch says players 'have to be more respectful' of opponent

Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch felt that with 16-year-old Kitchener Rangers defenceman Ben Fanelli lying in a hospital bed there would be no second chance for the 20-year-old culprit who put him there.

Erie Otters over-age forward Michael Liambas was suspended for the remainder of the regular season as well as the playoffs on Wednesday for smashing Fanelli into the end boards in a game at Kitchener Memorial Auditorium last Friday.

Fanelli still is in intensive care at Hamilton General Hospital, but his condition has been upgraded to serious, but stable.

Branch received plenty of criticism for his harsh penalty. The OHL commissioner even admitted the incident was a standard play, there was no intent to injure and that Liambas's truculent past did not play a part in his decision.

Branch had issues with three factors, however: the speed that Liambas had gathered before honing in on Fanelli, the distance the Otters forward travelled to make the hit and the lack of respect Liambas showed for his opponent. The OHL commissioner also hinted that the severity of Fanelli's injury weighed heavily on his ruling.

"[Liambas] will get a second chance, I'm sure, to play the game again somewhere at some point and time," Branch said on Hockey Night in Canada Radio on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately, that same second chance may not be there for Ben.

"In trying to consider everything, you cannot lose sight what has happened here to the other player. That's what really tipped the scale in my mind as to the need to take strong steps to have some form of justice to send out the message to all our players and minor hockey players that we have to be respectful, more respectful, of our opponent.

"I'm not afraid using the words 'fair play' in a tough game."

Fanelli suffered skull and facial fractures as well facial lacerations. When he was slammed into behind the Kitchener goal, Fanelli's head smashed off the metal stanchion in the boards and his helmet popped off.

Branch was assured by the Rangers training staff that Fanelli had his chinstrap done up properly and his mouth guard in place. The OHL commissioner did, however, remark that he wants the equipment manufacturer to review the video clip of the incident and determine why the helmet came off.

When contacted on Wednesday, Otters general manager Sherwood Bassin did not indicate whether Liambas would appeal the harsh decision. Branch stated he was open to discussing the possibility with the overage forward.

Bassin informed Liambas by mobile phone when the ruling came down. Liambas, who along with Bassin met with Branch on Tuesday in the league offices for a hearing, was driving from Toronto to Erie.

"Michael took it very hard," Bassin said. "What people have to understand is this is not a goofball kid. He had a 95 per cent average when he went to St. Mike's [high school in Toronto]. He visited kids at Shriners Hospital [for Kids in Erie]. He also set up a stay-in-school program for children. I wouldn't be surprised if he is a doctor one day.

"This wasn't the last image he wanted to leave in people's minds. He is genuinely sorry. Even in the hearing, he said he didn't know if he could deliver bodychecks anymore."

Knocks your socks off

Bassin hurried from his Oshawa, Ont.-area home on Wednesday to have dinner with his players and spend the evening with the distraught Liambas.

Did Bassin agree with Branch's decision?

"I've known David Branch for a long time and I trust him, his integrity and his honesty immensely," Bassin said. "But this still knocks your socks off.

"I don't want this to sound like we're not concerned about that kid in the hospital. We are very concerned. I wrote him and his family a lengthy letter. I said in it that even though we wear different crests we're all brothers."

One of the issues raised by critics as a result of this incident was should 16-year-olds be playing in a league with 20-year-olds. Bassin didn't agree with that notion. The Otters GM has been around the junior game for four decades and hasn't seen the age difference as an issue in the past.

"If that's the case, then why is a kid like [18-year-old former Erie player Ryan] O'Reilly playing in the NHL against 30-year-olds?" Bassin asked.

According to the OHL website, Fanelli checks in at six-foot-one and 177 pounds, while the older Liambas is five-foot-nine, 200 pounds.

Rangers president Steve Bienkowski did not return phone calls on Wednesday to comment on the suspension.