Ben Fanelli has spent close to two years working on his comeback. At a press conference tomorrow in Kitchener, he’ll be one step closer when the Rangers announce the 18-year-old defenceman has been cleared to rejoin the Ontario Hockey League team.
Fanelli made headlines and highlights after being violently hit from behind by then-Erie Otters forward Mike Liambas during a game on October, 31, 2009. He was airlifted from Kitchener to Hamilton General Hospital where he spent a week after sustaining serious injuries – skull and facial fractures – and a gash above his right eye which has left a permanent mark.
“It was quite intense to overcome,” Fanelli told Yahoo! Sports in an interview last March about the incident. “Initially, it was just to make sure I was OK to continue a regular life that was the biggest fear, but once I realized I was OK, then the worry of returning to hockey came in.
“A lot of this was just a battle with myself, and once I came to realize that I can get through this and that there are other things I can achieve. Things have been looking up ever since then.”
Kitchener's first regular season home game is on Sept. 23, against the rival Windsor Spitfires.
The defenceman was expected to be on the ice with Team White when the Rangers opened up their training camp on Wednesday night at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. The Rangers would not allow their staff or Fanelli to address the media prior to Thursday’s announcement outside of the following statement issued by Steve Bienkowski, the team’s chief operating officer.
"For almost the past two years, our organization, Ben's family and most importantly Ben himself, have focused on his recovery,” said Bienkowski. “I know this is an exciting day for Ben, our club and our fans.
”Ben's rehabilitation has been about healing, without specific timelines. His dedication, commitment and perseverance as well as the support of his family and teammates has allowed him to reach his goal."
Twelve months ago, the Oakville, Ont., native started skating with the team though it wasn’t until late November that he was able to take full contact in practice after being granted permission by his parents – Frank and Sue. At the time, he had yet to receive medical clearance from the doctors supervising his rehabilitation, concussion specialists Dr. Karen Johnston and Dr. Charles Tator, despite passing the baseline concussion test as well as others.
In his time away from the game, Fanelli has become a proponent for the head injury issue. He started “Head Strong” a program designed to help those afflicted by head injuries and adopted the moniker as a tribute to comeback hero, cyclist Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France after being diagnosed with cancer.
On June 5, to raise awareness and funds for his cause, Fanelli took part in the Subaru Triathlon in Milton, Ont., where he completed the 750-metre swim, a 30-kilometre ride and 7.5km run in a time of two hours and four minutes.
“Lance Armstrong overcame something that no one thought was possible and I want to replicate that in a different way with my injury,” Fanelli said before his race. “I planned to run this triathlon months ago because I needed another goal. I decided to turn it into something bigger and found an association I could support.”
Last week he took part in “Ride with Lance”, riding with Armstrong in Kitchener to raise money for Grand River Regional Cancer Centre.
Before taking off on his bike Fanelli tweeted his followers about getting the chance to cycle with his hero: “....so I guess dreams really do come true.”