KITCHENER, Ont. -- The scar which starts above the right eye is roughly an inch in length. It’s not perfectly straight, nor does it look particularly deep. If you weren’t looking, you might miss it.
More than once the Kitchener Rangers media relations staff reminds reporters that they should ask questions only about today -- and not about what caused the damage to his face. His skull was fractured by a brutal hit from behind during an OHL game. His skin was split open by a metal stanchion -- the same type of post that Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty was rammed into by Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara -- that stamped its mark on the 16-year-old rookie and left him lying in a seeping pool of blood.
The day that changed Ben Fanelli’s life was October, 31, 2009. But he says he is not defined by that moment, as he is here today.
Healthy and happy.
“It’s a miracle for me to be able to walk into this room and put together sentences after what I went through,” says the now 18-year-old.
That notion of being given a second chance is what has inspired Fanelli to raise awareness and funds for those who have been affected by head injuries. With the support of the Rangers, Fanelli has created “Head Strong,” a program designed to help promote the issue that has garnered hockey headlines over the past few months following severe concussions to the likes of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, St. Louis Blues forward David Perron and Pacioretty.
Like the circumstances surrounding his own injury, Fanelli says he’s not interested in talking about those hits, either. His solitary goal with the program is to help those afflicted by head injuries -- regardless of when or how they were hurt.
“There’s an epidemic of (hockey) head injuries in the media right now,” says Fanelli. “But I also want to focus on the other areas of life, it’s different sports and people just living regular lives that have head injuries. So it’s not about changing (hockey). It’s more about the way to deal with injuries and the way to prevent them.”
For now, the hit from behind delivered by then-Erie Otters forward Michael Liambas has robbed Fanelli of his hockey career, and the time and effort he put into making it to the Ontario Hockey League. Many nights he declined when his buddies asked him to go to the movies or to parties so he could be well-rested for a big game. He laboured through early morning practices and logged many miles to sustain his career. All those sacrifices were stolen in an instant.
“It’s what hockey meant to me. I was a hockey player,” says Fanelli. “It was important for me to reach the level of the OHL and to be playing Friday nights and weekends.
“To lose that, that was a lot to take in.”
But in the grand scheme of things, the Oakville, Ont., native is thankful it wasn’t worse considering he spent a week in hospital with a skull fracture and facial lacerations. He’s able to walk and talk. And when he grows older, he’ll be able to live on his own without around-the-clock care. And despite not having medical clearance to play, he can skate in contact practices these days with his Kitchener Ranger teammates.
He feels normal again.
“It was quite intense to overcome,” says Fanelli of the fear and turmoil he dealt with immediately after his injury. “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.”
On June 5, Fanelli plans to add a triathlon to his list of achievements when he participates in the Subaru Triathlon in Milton, Ont., to help raise money and awareness for his cause. Each day after his practice with the Rangers, he spends hours preparing for the 750-metre swim, 30-kilometre bike ride and a 7.5-kilometre run.
“None of us are surprised,” says Rangers teammate Ryan Murphy of Fanelli’s dedication. “He’s a very hard-working guy. Even before the triathlon, he was in the gym every day. He’s the last one out there (at practice) shooting pucks. He’s very committed to everything he does, so it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Ironically, Murphy has been out of Kitchener’s lineup recently because of a concussion suffered when he was hit with an elbow during a game on March 4. It’s the first concussion for the highly touted defenceman and even though his injury is relatively mild, he’s still had to struggle with headaches and dizziness.
“I never knew what it felt like until now… I just kind of felt out of it, your memory is a little blurry,” says Murphy of his symptoms. “You just feel like you’re not there. It was weird. I can’t even imagine what Ben went through when he got hit.”
When asked about Murphy’s injury, Fanelli’s dark brown eyes light up and he flashes a big smile before saying, “He’s such a joker and a fun guy to be around, so you can’t always tell if he’s concussed or if he’s just being good ol’ Ryan.”
Fanelli says he’s backed off on his training this week to promote his “Head Strong” initiative, but usually he’s preparing for the triathlon vigorously every day after school where he’s a student at Kitchener’s Eastwood Collegiate. He says running is his least favourite event --and the one most likely to be a problem in the race --because as a hockey player, he’s used to short bursts of energy rather than pacing for a long haul. He’s also stopped wearing an iPod when he swims because he won’t be able to wear one in the race, so he’s trying to get comfortable with his own thoughts.
“I used to worry about little problems -- stress with homework, stress with friends -- and now I just brush it off my shoulder after what I went through,” says Fanelli. “That happens with this triathlon, too. When I reach a day when I have to do a 30K bike and by 10K, I’m ready to pack up and head home. I think about what I’ve overcome already. I think about the power people have. It’s made me a lot stronger mentally, too, to overcome different things.
“It’s been an eye-opener. You can’t stop when one door closes because there’s a million other doors that open. That’s what I’ve realized.”
The day that changed his life is now only a footnote, because today belongs to Ben Fanelli.
- Kitchener Rangers