Head Strong: Fanelli talks life after career-changing check

A routine puck retrieval spun Ben Fanelli’s brain, and life, into an entirely new direction.

He was a 16-year-old defenceman for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers who had reasonable aspirations of one day playing in the NHL.

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Once Erie Otters winger Mike Liambas delivered a punishing check to Fanelli’s head, fracturing his skull, everything changed.

Fanelli, who lay motionless during that cringeworthy Oct. 30, 2009 development before being rushed to the hospital, would eventually recover from the injury. He managed to play three full seasons with the Rangers despite doctors believing his career was toast.

The flattening hit lives on forever thanks to the easy-to-share online world we live in. Uploaded by a few users to YouTube, footage of the incident has been viewed a total of about a million times.

“I know it’s there,” Fanelli said. “Every once in a while it’ll pop up on SportsCentre, but I don’t recollect anything.”

Sports-related brain injuries are “an epidemic,” according to the Oakville, Ont., native, who has first-hand knowledge. Concussions, big and small, need to be talked about.

The raw sense of danger you feel when watching the video resonates to this day. It’s a reminder of what Fanelli, now 21 and healthy, went through.

The pain.

The rock-bottom, nothing-else-matters moment.

The fear of the unknown.

Retired from playing after recording 47 points in 201 regular-season OHL games, Fanelli’s in the middle of a communications degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. He’s pursuing a career as a hockey referee on the side, which includes a tryout with the OHL in May, but is “trying to keep every door open that I can.”

He’s found other “adrenaline rushes” to replace the feeling of walking out to crowds of 8,000 every Friday at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

“The whole support team that I had was the reason why I was able to play in the Ontario Hockey League again,” Fanelli said of the Kitchener-Waterloo community, Rangers organization, his agent, family and friends. “It’s the reason I have motivation to get better, to work out every single day, push myself to the limits.”

One of those doors is a charity Fanelli co-founded in the wake of the infamous Liambas head check. It’s called Head Strong: Fanelli 4 Brain Injury Awareness and it’s aimed at providing support to athletes suffering from brain injuries.

“Optimism and hope are absent in concussion and head injury recovery right now,” Fanelli said. “Head Strong has the ability to turn that around.”

Along with the charity’s other founder, Kathleen McGinn, Fanelli has plans to push Head Strong past the awareness-only stage as a non-profit organization.

This spring, with board members newly installed, supporting research will be part of its revamped focus. Donations will be accepted, its brand will be altered.

“It’s not purely scientific, right,” he said. “We’re going to bring that element in -- it matters, it’s huge. But, just that human side of it where there’s support that everybody needs, it can be more powerful than people think.”

Fanelli’s direct experience with the subject, engaging personality and connections in the hockey world has helped Head Strong plough forward six years after the hit.

Without those YouTube videos, without evidence of the sequence that rerouted Fanelli’s map, his story doesn’t have a tangible starting point. Head Stong’s message doesn’t carry the same impact.

“From the point of view of others that are looking at headshots or looking at my story, it definitely plays a vital role,” he said, “because it shows that ability to be down and hurt but find a way back without anything special. It was hard work and support from the community.”

Fanelli may not remember the hit on YouTube – “it’s like watching someone else” – but Head Strong’s mission has certainly been committed to memory.


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