As word was passed down from the Ontario Hockey League's offices yesterday that Michael Liambas' OHL career had, for all intents and purposes, ended thanks to a dangerous hit on the Kitchener Rangers' Ben Fanelli, there were those ready and willing to pass a few words on to the OHL Commish.
What are you thinking?
What's next? No contact?
In some way, shape, or form, Commissioner David Branch has heard it all before—like when he instituted the head-checking penalty to the teenage league. Many complained that he was on a vendetta to take the intensity out of the league, ill-preparing the "youth of tomorrow's game" for the NHL.
Then there were the "purists" that were offended by the mandatory helmets (during fights) and neck guards—each of which someone, somewhere, claimed would ruin the game.
But you tell me: Have any of these rules hurt the Junior game?
In the time since all of these rules came into practice—and faced scrutiny—from David Branch's office, what's changed? Are the neckguards an eye sore, impeding players' routes to the puck and the speed of the game? No.
Is fighting out of the game because—oh no!—the players can't take off their helmets (which sport mandatory visors mind you) during a fight?
Check the OHL's boxscores from Wednesday night. In fact, here you go .
Looks like there was a little bad blood between the Barrie Colts and Owen Sound Attack doesn't it?
So far, Branch has protected his league without "ruining" the game. Hardly deserving of half the criticism he's received.
While there is no rule change (Yet) being passed down on the hit by Liambas, those people that were offended by all of the previous rule changes have taken it personally that Branch has taken Liambas out of the league (This is his finally season, as Liambas is an over-ager, making him ineligible to return).
But did David Branch really do anything wrong ?
Yes there is the unfortunate and unjust ending to a career, and no it isn't fair.
But who's to say what fair is in this situation.
Branch however, was simply protecting his league. His players. Other people's children.
While there are those who argue that this was "just a clean hockey hit" and "if it happened anywhere else on the ice there'd be no reaction", I'm not entirely sold on that train of thought.
First of all, this is a league for teenagers—open ice or not, you bet they'd look at that hit twice.
Second of all, clean is in the eye of the beholder.
Those that choose to argue, not necessarily in favor of Liambas but in support of him, say that Fanelli turned out of the check, making it worse than it could have been.
Is this true? Yes it is.
But the assessment of the hit as a hybrid boarding/charging hit is true as well. Both are offenses that are met with penalties, and if Fanelli didn't turn Liambas may have still struck him in the head—another penalty in the OHL (head-checking).
Does this mean there was definite intent to injure? I can't say, and neither can you. The only person that can is Liambas
The end result, which left Fanelli in dangerous condition on the ice, doesn't help Liambis' defense, and probably played a part in the hand Liambas was dealt.
So with all of the information sitting at his feet, Branch was left with a decision to make, and not an easy one at that.
Do you let Liambas walk away with a menial five-game suspension and risk a fervent shudder from parents of other players as they fret over their son suffering a similar fate, possibly pulling their kids from the league?
Or do you throw the book at Liambas in hopes that it makes an impact and teaches the other players in the league a lesson? Little did any of us know that the weight of that book would carry Liambas' junior career.
Now they're calling for Branch's head once again: "Would 30 games have not been enough? Even 40?"
While all of those that want it changed pine for their way to be had, consider this: The likelihood of any of us ever having to make a decision as impactful as the one Branch made, is very low.
On a day-to-day basis, Branch has to consider the livelihood and safety of 400-500+ players below the legal drinking age in the States, a lot of which are below the legal gambling age in Canada.
He also has to consider that these players are kids—they're years away from making their multi-million dollar deals in the NHL, while some may not go much farther than Canadian University Hockey following this.
Then there are the parents who decide whether or not to put their kids through the junior hockey program—probably the biggest critics he has to answer to, and not an easy one to answer to at that.
Put simply, it was an ugly situation with an ugly end for one and no end in site for the other, while David Branch's reaction was put to the forefront for what it was: A level-headed insight with the most important thing—the well-being of the players—at heart.
In all likelihood the judgement will come back to bite Branch one day, perhaps when a star player gets caught up in the same situation and the assumptions are made about the severity far too quickly.
Even if that day comes though, David Branch won't be swayed. He's made the tough decisions before and he'll make them again.
Not for glory, not for his name in a paper or on a message board, but simply to support his league, and make his players feel safe.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile or email him at email@example.com. You can also check out all of Bryan's work in his archives , or at Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game!
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