A couple of weeks have passed since Ben Fanelli, a 16 year old rookie defenceman playing with the junior Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, was seriously injured by a viscious hit. Hits like this one occur just about every game in amateur and professional hockey. It’s part of the “code”. Hockey is a macho sport and hitting is a tactic used to intimidate, in particular the skilled puck-carrying players on opposing teams; the end goal is to make these players think about something other than slick, efficient puck movement and thereby force errors. In the eyes of sport officials, you cannot eliminate hitting from the game and retain the inherent nature of the sport. Therefore, responsibility lies with the player about to be hit to keep his head up and protect himself at all times; God forbid that a player is seriously injured, then officials will point a finger at the offending player who through some convoluted interpretation of the rules must be held accountable for the injury. The issue here: a principled approach to responsibility for the consequences of hitting in the game is absent.
Since the beginning of the NHL hockey season, a number of star players have been seriously injured, mostly with concussions; and Ben Fanelli came close to losing his life. He still has a major battle in his future to restore his health, let alone the possibility of returning to serious hockey. The trend towards serious injury has been increasing in recent years as players are bigger, faster, stronger, their equipment harder and their training better. There used to be an unwritten rule that protected the best players; however, this has vanished with the respect for life and limb of opposing players.
Since this form of intimidation has become an important tool for coaches, each team recruits and trains a number of players best suited to this style. League officials, miopic in their view, can only see the hitting in the narrowest context. As a result nothing is done to protect the immediate or long term health of players. In the short term, league brass need to protect valuable marketing assets; in the long term, officials need to consider the impact of serious hits on the health of players who will become fathers and husbands.
Given this context — an absence of appropriate rules to control the impacts of hitting — it is not surprising that the junior league needed a scapegoat to bear the brunt of the Ben Fanelli injury; Michael Liambis, a 20 year old veteran of the Erie Otters who delivered a hit arguably within the rules of the game has been outrageously suspended for a full year — a length of suspension which is unprecedented in the sport and which effectively ends his junior career. What a burden to place on a young man! He must deal with the suspension and the guilt, because the league says that he did something wrong and should be punished. I hope he has found a competent therapist to help him through this ordeal.
To reinforce this picture of ambiguity, in professional hockey, if a hit does not result in an injury, it will usually go unpenalized. If an injury results from the hit, the “offending” player is removed from the game pending a hearing by the league. Usually a suspension results.
I agree with the junior league that someone must bear responsibility for the Ben Fanelli hit and, in my view the needless injury of this young player. I disagree with the league that that the message should be sent at the expense of this boy’s junior career. Clearly, responsibility lies with the league itself and for that matter all professional hockey leagues. Ambiguous guidelines result in arbitrary decisions.
Come on hockey officials! It is time to “fess up”. With this kind of hitting in the game, you are quite fortunate no player has been killed. You are quite lucky that more players have not suffered brain injuries. It is surprising that more players have not been paralysed. Are you waiting for the worst?
The Ben Fanelli hit is a wake up call. “WAKEUP” before more serious injuries occur. Extricate this abyss of ambiguity and confusion and replace it with a well thought out principle based solution. Stop blaming players and show solid leadership in this area.
In closing, how about a little justice for Michael Liambis? It would be appropriate to see the Ontario Hockey League relent on its severe punishment of Michael Liambis and allow this young man to finish his junior hockey career. Michael, I am in your corner.
Do you know of situations in your workplace where ambiguity is used to advantage by your employers? What should the principles be in this area?