Reflections on Liambas, and lessons learned

Reflections on Liambas, and lessons learned

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One of the more interesting subplots to the Maple Leafs’ 2010-11 preseason has been the Michael Liambas situation. Offered a tryout – amidst much fanfare – in time for the team’s annual Rookie Camp, the infamous winger was ultimately released on Thursday, during the first round of cuts at the NHL training camp.

Ordinarily, such a move would be regarded as no more than a footnote, a regular or even “to be expected” occurrence which takes place in any training camp. But Liambas’ situation was – and remains – anything but ordinary.

The part of the saga most know all too well is “The Hit”, which left then-16-year old forward Ben Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers (OHL) with a skull fracture and questions surrounding his hockey future, and Liambas with a suspension that ended his season (and OHL career).

The part most don’t know, however, is Michael Liambas himself. I suppose it is to be expected that one would be inclined, naturally, to form a conclusion based solely upon the evidence on hand; indeed, few fans could be expected to know the player himself, or to have been faced with a similar on-ice situation playing hockey at the Canadian Junior level. What was seen when his tryout was announced was a plethora of comments ranging from “he is a dirty player” to “he has no talent” to “he shouldn’t be allowed to play again.” Few were willing to look at the other side — the side that says mistakes do not define an individual’s character; rather, it is what the individual does in the aftermath of his/her mistakes which is the one and true marker of that particular estimation.

Fortunately for Liambas, Leafs’ GM Brian Burke is firmly in the latter camp. Upon signing the player to the rookie tryout, Burke noted:

“He’s an honours student. Everyone that’s ever played with him raves about his character. [The Erie GM and coach] told me he’s as good a kid as they’ve ever had.  He’s a very intelligent player, a natural leader, and he’s tough. So we’ll see what he can do to stay.” (via)

In other words, the player’s past transgressions came secondary to the defining characteristics of the individual himself. While most were quick to write Liambas off as a mush-headed goon, the sort who shouldn’t be allowed to play in the league, the truth of the matter was quite the opposite. A good student, and a good person, who made a terrible mistake and accepted his punishment without appeal or complaint.

Then there is the matter of the second suspension, the one he received while signed in the IHL while his original OHL suspension was still in effect. “Suspension” is a loaded word, one which instantly conjures up thoughts of illegal hits, dirty plays, players with little regard for the rules or each other, and makes one apt to look upon an individual in a severely negative light. Given that Liambas was already under suspension from the OHL when the IHL suspension came down, how could one not make the assumption that he must be dirty, and avoid making the logical leap to where the player does not deserve a hockey career?

Well, for starters, one could actually look at the metrics of the IHL hit itself, where no penalty was called on the play. The victim of the hit ruptured his spleen on the play, yet told reporters he did not think the hit was malicious and referred to the injury as a fluke. As in many of the minor leagues, an injury caused by a violent play – whether within the rules or not – often results in some form of suspension (and you can bet Liambas’ pre-existing OHL ban had a lot to do with the final ruling). Never mind the fact that the player who was injured admitted he was surprised Liambas received a suspension, believing the hit to be clean and the injury of a freak nature. You don’t see that everyday … and it should tell you something about the player.  His acceptance of the suspension, again without complaint despite a very clear avenue for appeal, should tell you something about his character.

Which takes us back to the much-debated OHL hit, the source of the original suspension and unfortunately the play by which his career and image have been defined to date. That hit has been the source of much debate, primarily surrounding what constitutes a legal bodycheck, and which player is at fault for the injury (which was the primary reasoning behind the suspension).  You can probably guess where Burke comes out on this:

“It was a legal bodycheck that went horribly wrong. I don’t mean to diminish the injuries the other young man (Fanelli) suffered. That could have happened to a lot of players and unfortunately it happened to this kid.” (via)

Having been at that particular game, and witnessing the hit first-hand in real-time speed (as opposed to slowed-down video replay), I can tell you that Burke does have a point here.  The key to the play was not the injury, so much as it was the origin.  When Liambas began the act of moving toward Fanelli, with a full intent to bodycheck him against the end boards, the player was facing him – and in fact moving toward him. Pause the frame: at this point, it appears as though it will be a clean hit.  But a split second later, with Liambas fully engaged in his stride, Fanelli began to turn to try to move the puck to the other side … and we all know what happened next.

Hence the never-to-be-resolved ‘grey area’ nature of this debate. Pause the frame at the point of impact, and you can make a strong case the hit is illegal. Then move back a couple frames, and note how close Liambas is to Fanelli when he begins to turn.  Move back a couple more, and note where Fanelli is facing when Liambas begins to take stride.  Then find a real-time clip, and note how the whole play happens in about a two-and-a-half second span.  Now tell me that  categorizing the hit is an easy decision.  It’s not.

Note that none of this is to absolve Liambas of responsibility for what happened, or to place any upon Fanelli. Rather, it is to point out that sometimes there is no one to blame, no matter how much we wish there could be. Sometimes, a split second is all it takes for what looks to be a routine, innocuous hockey play to morph into a traumatic incident. An extra half-second, or a half-second less, and there is no injury and no suspension. Instead, what appears to be a clean play at the outset became a freak incident, one resulting in a serious and career-threatening injury to Fanelli, and a tarnished reputation and career for Liambas.

As for the OHL’s role in all this, the suspension should not have come as a surprise. I remember my friend saying after the game that  he guessed Liambas would probably get five games or so for the hit. I shook my head and said, “I’m willing to bet he’s done for the season.” The reason? The OHL has been pioneering a crackdown on the level of physical play within Junior leagues for a while now, a move largely prompted by the gap in physical development that marks all Junior leagues (where still-growing 16 year olds play against already-filled out 20 year olds). It was only a matter of time before someone was to be made an example … and that someone turned out to be Michael Liambas.

So what is the point of rehashing all of this?  It is to try to understand — rather than simply react to — the decision to invite this particular player to camp despite the hefty amount of baggage which will forever accompany him. I can’t tell you what went through Liambas’ mind in the moments following that hit, but I can tell you that the look in his eyes as he was escorted off the ice was not one of satisfaction, of triumph, or even adrenaline-fueled maschismo. No; it was a look of fear. Not for himself, but for the player who lay crumpled and bleeding beside the end boards. It was a look that had “oh God, what did I just do?” written all over it.  Amidst the fans screaming obscenities and officials rushing to get him through the tunnel to the locker room as quickly as possible, I caught that look. It haunted me then; and it haunts me now, especially in the wake of the commentary by those who saw only a slowed-down YouTube replay.

It’s not that simple, is it? Spoiler alert: nothing ever is.

Upon Liambas’ release from the Maple Leafs, much commentary flowed about how this player has no talent, cannot play, should not play, is a ticking time bomb, a danger to other players, and so on and so forth. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Two fluke plays, two suspensions, a career defined. A sad ending for a young player whose character was once so highly regarded.

Or is it?

Burke offered Liambas a chance to show what he could do in front of pro scouts from not only the Maple Leafs, but other organizations as well.  When Liambas was cut, many assumed it was because he simply did not have the necessary skill to compete.

But not Brian Burke.

“Mike played well, and he’s a quality person. We have a contract numbers issue, and that is the reason for cutting him loose, not his play. We are going to try to find him a place to play.” (via)

Second chances are a wonderful gift. Here’s a kid whose reputation is in tatters because of a singular mistake, and he is offered an opportunity to get his career back on track by a GM known to have a soft spot for solid-character players. Liambas may not have shown Burke enough to earn an NHL contract, but he certainly showed him enough to earn the GM’s support in finding him a place to play, be it on a minor-league contract with one of the Leafs’ own affiliates, or a phone call to recommend another organization give him a shot.

Yet in all of the commentary surrounding his release, few took the time to notice the above quote, and even fewer took the time to stop and think about it. Vitriol and spite are always the easiest paths to traverse, but the simple judgments are rarely the right ones. There’s a lesson in what Burke did — and continues to do — for that young man, one of the nature of judgment, of the necessity to look beyond the cover, and dig beneath the surface, before deciding upon what or who an individual may be.  In a sense, this post isn’t really about Liambas so much as it is about us: our reactions, our judgments, our perceptions, and the need to take a step back at times and ask the one question we all forget to ask far too often: “why?”

Why is it Brian Burke would offer a chance to a player with such a turbulent history? Is it simply to make waves, to generate a buzz, the no-such-thing-as-negative-attention theory? Or is it — setting the cynic aside for a moment — about something far greater than that? Perhaps Liambas’ tale is less a sports story and more a human one, for which we have been allowing ourselves to miss the point.

The truth is, we all make mistakes in our lives. We have all failed as often as we have succeeded, and will continue to do so. And we have all longed for, and believed in our core that we deserve, our own second chances to apply the lessons we have learned in order to make things right — to do things right. After all, we’re only human.

And so is Michael Liambas.

These are a lot of words to devote to a kid who may never make an NHL impact during his hockey career, but to be fair this post isn’t really about Michael Liambas to begin with.  It’s about remembering that these players we cheer for, who we refer to in detached, quantifiable terms, are human beings just like us; will make the same mistakes, just like us; and deserve the same opportunities to rectify their mistakes, just like us.  Michael Liambas deserves a second chance at his career, as does Ben Fanelli, as would anybody caught in a similar situation.

If there is indeed a lesson to be learned through the words and actions of the Leafs’ GM in regard to Liambas, I do believe that is it.  And should we take that lesson to heart, perhaps there is some good, one small ray of light we can shine into our own lives, that may emerge from that horrible night in late-October of 2009.

Here’s wishing all the best to Michael Liambas as he continues to take steps toward rehabilitating both his image and his career. And to Ben Fanelli, for a speedy recovery and the ability to return to the game he loves.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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