KITCHENER — Hockey may be on trial over serious head injuries.
But Ben Fanelli, whose hockey career has been stalled by a hit that resulted in severe head trauma, declines to sit on the jury.
“It’s not my duty to change the game,” the Kitchener Rangers defenceman said Thursday as he discussed his plans to run, swim and cycle in a triathlon this June to raise funds for brain injury awareness.
The game may be beyond changing.
In Tuesday night’s NHL game between Boston and Montreal, the Bruins towering defenceman Zdeno Chara drove Max Pacioretty’s head into the turnbuckle stanchion at the Canadiens bench.
Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and fractured neck, the same injuries Colorado’s Steve Moore sustained seven years earlier – to the night – after Todd Bertuzzi drove Moore’s head into the ice in Vancouver.
On Wednesday, as the NHL refused to suspend Chara for putting Pacioretty in hospital, Fanelli prepared to take media questions for the first time in nearly a year.
It’s been 16 months since Fanelli, seven games into his now-dormant Ontario Hockey League career, almost died on the ice at the Aud.
Strafed and sideswiped by Mike Liambas of the Erie Otters, Fanelli’s head slammed into a stanchion supporting the glass at the Zamboni entrance behind one net. His helmet flew off on impact. Fanelli spent a week in hospital with skull fractures and severe head trauma. Liambas was banned from the OHL.
Fanelli, who turned 18 on Wednesday, skates weekly with the Rangers as part of his remarkable recovery. But he is no longer on the active roster for this season. The reality is his hockey career may be over.
As Montreal police promised a probe into the Chara hit on Pacioretty, Fanelli spoke of his progress and the need to transform himself from “bulky” hockey player into a “slimmer” triathlete. He is taking business courses now in preparation for university.
The likelihood he must embrace a career outside hockey, is something he is prepared for. Initially, after his injuries, he was determined to return to hockey.
But if the game will not change, the victims of its devastating legacy will have to.
Fanelli has re-assessed his life. Pacioretty may be next to.
“I’m not his doctor,” Fanelli said of Pacioretty. “I don’t really have a comment on everything he’s going through.
Flanked by teammates Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Murphy, Fanelli also spoke of the inevitability of hockey’s grimmest moments involving bruised brain matter.
Recent head traumas threaten the careers of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Boston’s Marc Savard. Both top centres have serious concussions. If and when they do return to the NHL, they may never be what they once were on the ice. Or off the ice.
Even Murphy said he was uncertain of playing Friday’s game against Owen Sound after taking a head shot in Kingston a week earlier.
"Concussions or, which they say now, head injuries, that’s part of the game and it happens,” said Fanelli, an Oakville kid who is taking business courses this year in preparation for university in the fall.
“On purpose or not, it’s going to happen. Not only in hockey, other sports and daily life. You can hit your head.”
So Fanelli will run, cycle and swim to help those who face the same daunting recovery he has endured. The program he created, Head Strong: Fanelli 4 Brain Injury Awareness, is to be a permanent part of his future.
“This is more to treat those concussions, as opposed to prevent them,” Fanelli said.
“I can’t do that. I’m only one person. But I can raise the money to help those people that have those concussions.”
Physically, Fanelli says he is just as he was before.
Emotionally, he has difficult days. That’s where friends like Landeskog and Murphy help out. They were on the ice with him when his helmet flew off and the Aud fell silent on Oct. 30, 2009.
They sat beside him on Thursday, wearing Head Strong T-shirts and taking questions.
“Me and Ryan, we just want to be there for him,” said Landeskog, the Rangers captain.
Dan Lebold, the Rangers trainer who helped save his life, was there too.
So were most of his coaches and teammates like Cody Sol and Mike Morrison. His agent, Waterloo’s Rob Hooper, also watched Fanelli’s winning performance in front of the media. Things are about to change for Ben Fanelli again.
He used to be the kid who missed the party to go to hockey.
“Now, I’ll miss the party because I have to train for the triathlon,” he said.
He will do a 750-metre swim, 30-kilometre bike ride and 7.5-kilometre run. That’s his agenda in Milton on June 5. There will be no skates involved.
“After three or four concussions, parents think their kid’s sporting career is finished,” said Harry Zarins, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Canada. “This is a prime example that you can switch into another sport. You don’t just stop being active.”
If hockey won’t change, the Ben Fanellis of the world have to.
Just don’t ask him to testify in the case against hockey. It’s not his duty. He’s been through enough. And don’t ask the hard-hitting Landeskog, sure to be a top NHL pick in June, to make a ruling in the Pacioretty-Chara incident either.
“It’s not up to me to judge that,” Landeskog said.
No, it isn’t. The game goes on. You take your chances.
One shift, your whole career is ahead of you.
The next shift, you’re a triathlete in training. If you’re lucky.