November 26, 2020

Injuries and hockey have gone hand in hand since the game’s inception, like peanut butter and jam. Every time a gruesome injury occurs a debate always follows with the same question being asked: “Is this game too dangerous?” Action is being demanded by the public and change is wanted, whether that be in minor hockey or in the NHL.

Colin Perkel, a journalist at the CBC, wrote a story in January about a court awarding an Ottawa man $700,000 after he was checked from behind in a hockey game almost eight years ago.

Perkel said, “The case arose in March 2012, when Gordon MacIsaac body-checked Drew Casterton behind the net during the last minute of their recreational league game in Ottawa. Casterton hit his head on the ice.”

This case is particularly interesting as the judge had to sort through numerous conflicting testimonies to figure out the story and get it all straight. The big decision came down to, was it fair play or not?

Perkel wrote, “Every player who testified stated that a blindside hit to the face is, and was, outside the bounds of fair play.” Perkel quoted Justice Sally Gomery, who said, “They (blindside hits) have no place in recreational play, or in any hockey game.”  

This isn’t the first time courts have had to deal with a hockey-related case and it won’t be the last. Playing hockey doesn’t make you immune to the consequences that follow from your actions.

With that being said, hockey has rules and if a player breaks those rules in a game there will be a punishment. This varies depending on the severity of the infraction. It could be just a two-minute minor penalty for tripping someone or you could be suspended for the rest of your league year which is what happened to Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters after his hit on Ben Fanelli in the 2009-2010 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season.

He was finally starting to achieve his dream of making it to the NHL. His first season in the OHL was as a 16-year-old playing at home in Kitchener in front of thousands of screaming fans. Blood was racing through his veins, his adrenaline was pumping into overdrive and his heart felt like it was about to jump out of his chest. His nerves were almost unbearable.

“I have to perform and impress to make the NHL,” he thought to himself.

The puck was dumped into his zone which was a simple play.

“Pick up the puck and take it out maybe? I could do a breakout pass to another streaking forward and get it out of the zone. I think the coach would like that,” he thought.

He had to make a decision on a dime; a potential game-changing one. His goalie stopped the puck and he picked it up and went to make a pass and then – nothing.

He woke up in the hospital with no recollection of what happened, with his parents in tears and one of the worst headaches he ever felt. Confused about what had happened, he had to be told.

Right after handling the puck he got hit from behind and was driven headfirst into the glass, fracturing his skull. He started bleeding onto the ice, his body stiff as a board, with no movement at all.

His hockey career was over; there was no coming back from this.

Ben Fanelli moments after his devastating injury suffered on October 31, 2009 (Photo from Ben Fanelli).

“My brain was bleeding in three places,” said Fanelli, describing the injury he suffered on that day.

The injury was so catastrophic that most 16 year olds would have given up on any idea of ever playing hockey again; but not Fanelli, he became more motivated than ever to make it back.

“The slim chance of returning to hockey fueled everything that I was doing, to be honest. That was an opportunity to prove people wrong, an opportunity to continue to chase my dream of playing in the NHL,” he said.

He was born in Oakville and grew up playing hockey in the Toronto area before eventually getting drafted by the Kitchener Rangers.

He didn’t know anything about Kitchener.

“I grew up thinking going to school was the only way to get to the next level and the year before my draft year I started to learn about the OHL and the possibilities there. I didn’t even know it was an option,” he said.

He quickly fell in love with the city and the city quickly embraced him.

“This community here in Kitchener-Waterloo was absolutely outstanding.”

From the minute he walked into the dressing room and met Steve Spott who was the head coach and the general manager of the Rangers at the time, Fanelli felt like he belonged.

“The sporting community is often frowned upon for treating individuals or humans like numbers and racehorses and, ‘Oh, that one is injured. OK, forget about him, let’s bring in the next one,’” Fanelli said. “I went back to the team after my injury and my head coach said to me, in a world where people are very much treated like I said (above), ‘You are apart of this team for as long as you’ve signed your contract. You’re going to be apart of this team in whatever capacity you want to be, hope you get back to playing, but if not, you’re going to have a role here if you want one.’”

That type of closeness and the feeling like he belonged really helped him through his recovery. He worked non-stop to get back into shape for the slim chance at competing again, with others cheering him on, including employees at a Tim Hortons who went out of their way to be kind.

He would often walk into that Tim Hortons to order a coffee and a staff person working there would give him a coffee for free and wish him the best.

“I would turn to pay the barista and she would say, ‘This coffee is on us,’ and the rest of the individuals working at the Tim Hortons turned and looked at me and just gave me a smile. The lady said, ‘We don’t know if you’re ever going to get back to playing but we want you to get fully recovered and get back to full health so we wish you the best,’ and gave me the coffee for free and sent me on my way,” he said.

Often with head injuries, there are a lot of mental health problems that stem from them. People like Daniel Carcillo, an ex NHLer, is a big advocate for player mental health. However, Fanelli never fell into a pit in his recovery.

“People say with concussions or head injuries you have to go to the darkroom and spend time in the darkroom and it’s emotional and difficult. I didn’t even have the chance to sit in the darkroom. My teammates, this community, my billet family pulled for me. There was no darkroom, there was just enjoying the process of recovery and making the best of this recovery and finding opportunity within the recovery to learn new things and have new experiences. I definitely wish I could create that for everyone going through concussions because it’s not easy,” he said.

Fanelli worked his way back to compete in a triathlon, a feat not many people do in the best of times, as well as play for the Rangers again.

Ben Fanelli and the Kitchener Rangers giving the fans a salute at the end of one of their games at the Aud (Photo from Ben Fanelli).

“It was the one moment in my life where it was like a pause, like time literally stopped. Which sounds crazy but it was literally like time froze when I skated out and people were on their feet that first game back. It was hard to put into words, it was literally like it felt like time had stopped,” he said.

Fanelli was also featured on Hometown Hockey, a TV show produced by Sportsnet that highlights communities and players across Canada. Fanelli finished his hockey career in 2013-2014 and played over 150 games for the Rangers including two playoff runs and being named captain of the team in his final year.

Nowadays, Fanelli is still involved in hockey as an assistant coach at the University of Waterloo for the men’s hockey team. He also has his own business called Heroic Minds which helps people achieve their goals through workshops that help them “get out of their own way.” He also does an online podcast and sells Heroic Minds clothing.

Ben Fanelli at one of his workshops for Heroic Minds (Photo from Ben Fanelli).

“Yeah, it’s crazy. It (hockey) was a hobby. It was honestly through me being lost, trying to figure out what I’m going to do in life. If I’m not going to be a hockey player (what am I going to do). That’s really the root of the creation of this whole thing and I thought, you know, I’m going to sit down with people who have been through tragedies or are living through challenges, struggles and adversity and let’s have an open and vulnerable conversation about it and share it with people,” he said.

He releases podcasts talking with people about the struggles they have overcome and what they did and what helped them get to where they are now.

Ben Fanelli having a conversation for one of his podcasts (Photo from Ben Fanelli).

“Through … the workshops and through the podcast it’s real stories (being told), it’s not life hacks, it’s not anything like that. It’s how we can continue to get out of our own way and realize all the tools we need aren’t in the 1,001 self-help books. They are actually inside us but we have to pull those out of us by simply reorganizing our thoughts in a more efficient way because as complicated as we think things are, we have been given so many tools that give us so much control, we now think that we have this control over things that we really don’t,” he said.

Fanelli is a big mental well-being advocate and will continue his work for the foreseeable future.

He is an example of taking an awful situation and making the most of it and not giving up. He used the power of sport to motivate himself to get back to competing and for that chance to live the dream he had since he was a kid. 

The hockey culture embraced him – his fans, his teammates, his coaches and random baristas at Tim Hortons. This showed the power of the hockey world. How it can bring people together and create an amazing story.

However, the hockey culture may not treat everyone as kindly. There has been lots of discussion in recent years on whether hockey culture is good or bad. Several hard questions were posed to Hockey Canada on this issue. 

In a 2014 article by Rory Boylen of the Hockey News, he discusses how minor hockey across the board has decided to raise the age of hitting to the Bantam age group (13 to 14 year olds). 

In 2014 the hitting rule changed from being OK for all players in Bantam House League to AAA, to just Rep players in Bantam and up.

Boylen asks if enough is being done and if hitting is really the issue. He explores other possibilities such as coaching, overcompetitiveness and general lack of education.

“I remember some awfully big hitters in Peewee and Bantam – especially at the house league level – who didn’t know how to properly throw a hit at all. But they sure enjoyed crunching their opponents,” he said.

He opens the article recounting a story of when he was in Tyke (seven years old and under) and the coach was screaming profanities at them in the arena.

Many people believe that body checking is “a part of the game.” It adds new layers and a competitive drive to pick up the speed of the game. An almost kill or be killed kind of mentality.

Boylen poses this question to the reader: “Consider that next time Little Johnny runs his competitor into the boards from behind or with a high hit, what will the reaction of his coach and parents be?”

The parents and coaches.

Both are paramount in shaping young hockey players into who they will be as players as well as men or women. It is up to them whether they shape players into blood-hungry headhunters on the ice who want to injure every player or to become sportsmanlike players who exemplify the good qualities of the game.

It is clear though, some parents can take the game a bit too far. 

“I had to ask my coaches to walk me and my brother out of the arena because I knew that the opposing team’s parents were going to harass us. Even having the coaches with us did very little to solve that as we were still harassed by the parents,” said Josh Potts, a former minor hockey league player.

It doesn’t stop just there.

“My most vivid memory of a run-in with an opposing team’s parent was when we were at an away tournament and during one of our first games, one of our players (who had long hair) was called a homophobic slur by an opposing parent. Which, of course, caused a commotion in the stands,” said Brandon Ward, a former minor hockey league player.

To help try and Band-Aid this paramount issue and reduce the natural aggression of the sport, Hockey Canada introduced a mandatory course for parents to take in 2014 called Respect in Sport.

The goal is to try and educate parents about proper behaviour in the arena and to hold them accountable for their actions in the hopes of creating a more positive environment at the rink.

Reducing injuries in hockey is like trying to put a Band-Aid on a bursting pipe.

Hockey Canada, however, is trying and typically when they incorporate programs to help stop an issue they are generally effective. 

“Hitting from behind used to be a major problem and a focal point at Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) referee recertification programs – those lessons got results. Hits to the head became a major issue, so a rule against it was added to the book and driven home at referee and coach programs. It’s not perfect today, but it’s better understood and created a new norm,” said Boylen.

One of the driving forces behind trying to reduce the number of devastating hits is concussions.

The definition of a concussion from Hockey Canada’s website is, “Concussions are brain injuries caused by the brain moving inside of the skull. The movement causes damage that changes how brain cells function, leading to symptoms that can be physical (headaches, dizziness), cognitive (problems remembering or concentrating), or emotional (feeling depressed). A concussion can result from any impact to the head, face or neck or a blow to the body which causes a sudden jolting of the head.”

The website also offers a rather helpful interactive graphic on four ways a concussion can occur. 

Direct impact to the head illustration by Hockey Canada.

The first way is a direct impact to the head. This is where any person makes direct contact with the head and the head snaps forward and the brain collides with the skull. This is normally the case when there is a direct hit to the head in hockey.

Impact to head from body flow illustration by Hockey Canada.

Second is an impact to head from body flow. This is when a person is suddenly hit to the body and the head snaps forward and makes contact with any surface and stops abruptly, thus making the brain hit the skull. This is often the case when a player is hit cleanly and the head snaps and hits the boards.

Direct impact to the head illustration by Hockey Canada.

The third is the direct impact due to fall. This one is pretty straightforward. Players will slip or have their balance knocked off and then fall and the head whips and hits the ground. Thus making the brain slam into that side of the skull.

Indirect impact illustration by Hockey Canada.

The fourth and final way listed is an indirect impact. This occurs when the player is hit and the head snaps back and forth, causing the brain to slide and slam into both sides of the skull.

Now let’s look at some of the numbers the NHL has about concussions.

Concussions in sport, in general, has always been a topic of discussion, particularly in the NFL and the NHL. It got a lot of attention when the movie Concussion came out featuring Will Smith. It focused on the issue in the NFL and eventually forced owners, managers and coaches to admit it was a problem and to try and find a solution. The NHL took a lot longer to admit concussions were a concern in hockey as well.

According to a study by the British Medical Journal that was released in 2014, NHL teams and their insurers paid about $653 million in salary to players sidelined by concussions and other injuries over three recent seasons.

Jeff Klein, in a New York Times article, wrote about the amount of money the NHL is essentially losing due to concussions and the repercussions of it. “On average, 50.9 per cent of NHL players missed at least one game to injury over each of those three seasons, the researchers said. Of the 1,307 players who appeared in at least one game over those three seasons, 63 per cent missed time to injury, according to the study.”

Two years later the NHL updated its concussion protocol, in October 2016, right before the new season. Now there is a “spotter” who decides whether a player who has been hit is well enough to continue to play.

Fines and suspension given out per team.

In this chart by Sportrac, it shows the suspensions and fines given out for the season and a breakdown of all the data below. 

Throughout the entire hockey season, there was only one fine or suspension handed out for an illegal check to the head and it was to New York Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux when he hit Vegas Golden Knights’ forward Cody Glass. He received a $2,000 fine for this incident.

The chart features every other suspension and also shows that the NHL is punishing its players when they break the rules. It appears that the NHL is actively trying to equip the referees with the right tools to keep the players safe.

With this type of action going on in the NHL (where player safety should be prioritized for everyone’s sake), are these actions causing a ripple effect down into minor hockey systems?

“There were a number of games that I have been a part of that have gotten out of hand,” said Joel Egerdee, a former minor hockey league player. “For myself personally, I have never felt unsafe. I felt that I could always stick up for myself and if needed my teammates were always there for me as well.” 

When games “get out of hand” it is normally when calls by the ref are missed or when a dirty hit is laid.

“I can recall a number of games that got very out of hand but in most of them I was never the one involved in dirty plays so I didn’t usually feel unsafe,” said Michael Schmidt. 

Is Hockey Canada on the right path?

Allen Maki, a journalist for the Globe and Mail, reported on a study done by the University of Calgary studying the injury rate of Peewee level kids before the hitting rule was established (the 2011-2012 season) and after (2013-2014). 

“The study shows the introduction of Hockey Canada’s body-checking. The rule resulted in “a 50-per-cent relative reduction in injury rate and a 64-per-cent reduction in concussion rate in 11-year-old and 12-year-old hockey players in Alberta,” said Maki.

Minor hockey is following the lead of the NHL and attempting to reduce injuries in hockey.

The cost of both injuries and expenses is making it harder for kids to afford hockey.
(Photo by Liam Piattelli/Spoke).

Despite the negatives, hockey players have no problem vocalizing their love of the game and its benefits.

“Hockey was very important to me growing up,” said Potts. “I learned a lot of things about myself as well as how to be a good teammate, competitiveness, controlling my actions. It was also very important to me because I met lots of great people and some are still close friends to this day.” 

Kyle Struth, a former minor hockey league player said, “It’s hard to put it into words how much hockey meant to me growing up. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people I met in the sport or everything the sport had to offer. Hockey has made me into the person I am today. Many of the people I grew up playing with are my best friends because of the sport and we share so many memories from the great years we had together.”

Egerdee said, “Playing hockey was one of the most important things to me personally. I wouldn’t be who I am without it.”

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