KITCHENER, ONT -- Ben Fanelli says he doesn’t remember the hit from behind that fractured his skull and left him hospitalized for a week.
As a result, the Kitchener Rangers defenceman believes there won’t be much apprehension when he finds himself once again at the scene of the accident -- going for a puck back behind net.
“I don’t remember that being me when I watch the video of me being hit,” says the 18-year-old of the vicious collision on Oct. 30, 2009. “I won’t be nervous going back into the corners or behind the net as much as being nervous of the situation of me coming back to play my first game. It’s a bit of nervous excitement, so I’m not concerned.”
But while Fanelli can’t remember much what happened to put him in intensive care, his mother – Sue Fanelli – is having a difficult time trying to forget.
“It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever gone through and I hope to God I never have to experience anything like that ever again.”
So when her youngest son finally regained his health and told her he wanted to return to play the game that nearly claimed his life, her first thought was one of pure maternal instinct.
“No way! I’m outta here. I’m not doing this,” says Sue with a laugh. “But you know he is relentless and he was going to prove to me physically he could do it and he did. He was determined.”
But it wasn’t just his mom that needed convincing. At first, doctors told Ben that a return to hockey would be out of the question, given the severity of his head injury.
“Going back to play sports wasn’t in my best interests, the doctors said,” recalls Fanelli. “But after more and more doctor’s appointments, they started to change their minds and things were looking a lot better [for a comeback].”
That determination paid off as Ben Fanelli was officially cleared on Thursday afternoon to return to the Rangers and resume his Ontario Hockey League career after more than a year and a half of rehabilitation. His teammates, coaches and family were all there to see the culmination of his unwavering efforts.
Kitchener Rangers head coach and GM Steve Spott says the 18-year-old would regularly show up at his office and ask if he could practice with the team.
“A number of times I’d have to put my head down and say, ‘No, you can’t practice today, Ben,” says Spott. “He’d have to leave our office, put his head down and make a lonely walk down to our weight room or into our bike room.”
Fanelli was allowed to skate with the Rangers a year ago and started taking contact in practice last November. The Rangers’ first regular season game at home is on Sept. 23 against their Western Conference rival Windsor Spitfires.
“Today, the day has come where I can tell Ben that he can practice and play every day,” says Spott. “It really is a dream come true for us as coaches.”
In addition to taking part in hockey, the Oakville, Ont., native completed his first triathlon in June. Last week, he rode alongside cyclist and hero Lance Armstrong to raise money for Grand River Regional Cancer Centre.
But despite all the assurances from Ben and all the green lights from various doctors and medical professionals, Sue still has a few reservations. The idea of watching her son play hockey again has been difficult to come to terms with.
“I’m struggling with that a bit. I want to be there [at the rink] but I don’t know if I can actually watch,” says Sue. “That’s my thing I have to work through as a mom, I’m working on it – devising some methods of how I can do it.”
Ben says he completely understands where his mom is coming from because, well, that’s what mothers do.
“She’s a mom and I love her for what she’s doing,” says Ben. “I would probably feel a little more uncomfortable if she wasn’t [concerned], because she really does care. The ability for her to still support me and allow me to go back to hockey is just incredible.”
Even more incredible after Sue explains she’s always reviled the violence in the sport and was apprehensive about putting her sons – Ben and older brother Chris – into hockey in the first place, even as children.
“When they put their equipment on (Ben) and his brother, I was always worried,” says Sue. “I don’t like the violence in hockey. It’s difficult, very difficult.”
She says her boys – and husband Frank – ganged up on her to get the go-ahead to try hockey in the first place. Seeing that Ben was talented at hockey made it even more difficult for her to say no.
And even now, after what has been a two-year nightmare for her family, it’s still impossible to dampen the dreams of her youngest son.
“Especially a mother who can’t stand the violence of [hockey], yeah it was a hard decision,” says Sue. “But it’s supporting Ben in what he wanted to do. The last two years has been life-altering for all of us, but as much as it has been negative in terms of what happened, it has been very positive in his recovery and seeing this amazingly positive side to him.
“We are so proud of him.”