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Ben Fanelli is All He Ever Wanted to Be....Again

Special thanks to Bryan Thiel for the article.

Ben Fanelli is a triathlete. He is a soon-to-be student at Laurier University, the face of his own campaign to raise awareness for brain injuries, and a pretty snappy dresser to boot.

He is also, once again, a hockey player.

Nearly two years after Fanelli was driven head-first into a stanchion behind the Kitchener Rangers’ net by then-Erie Otter Michael Liambis, Ben and the Rangers shone a light amidst the darkness of hockey and it’s violent history of recent head injuries when they announced that he was officially cleared for the 2011-12 Ontario Hockey League season.

Both Head Coach and General Manager Steve Spott and Chief Operating Officer Steve Bienkowski were quick to point out though, that this day was far from their minds on October 30th, 2009.

‘That drive down to Hamilton (following the incident), I wasn’t a coach. I was a parent.’ Spott recalled. ‘The furthest thing from our minds that night was celebrating his return to hockey.’

‘Today is an exciting day. A wonderful day.’

It was an incident that turned the hockey world on its head, as a chilling hush fell over the Aud at the time of the hit. People would quickly become aware of what had happened in Kitchener that night, as the violent impact circulated the airwaves of TV and the internet, leaving the viewers to formulate their own opinions about the hit and about the sport of hockey. Well wishes were passed on to the Fanelli family from all over as strangers hoped for the well-being of the boy who wore number four in blue and red. Once the recovery process started though, Fanelli wished for more than just that.

‘A week or so after the accident I felt I’d be back to ‘regular’ life. But a regular life for me is playing hockey and trying to make the NHL.’

And so Ben made his way back to school to try and live a life that everyone else found ‘regular’. But it wasn’t good enough for him. As he rehabilitated his injuries and waited for his post-concussion symptoms to pass, he dreamt of his hockey playing life. By the time he was well enough to come to games it was impossible to separate Ben from the rink. Soon enough it was nearly impossible to separate him from the weight room…just not by his choice.

“Ben would walk into my office and ask ‘Can I play today?’ a number of times I’d put have to my head down and say ‘No Ben, not today”, Spott remembered. After that he’d “make the lonely walk down to the weight room or to the bike room.”

It was during that time spent in the gym that Ben looked towards cyclist and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong for inspiration. Armstrong of course, had overcome various forms of cancer to become the most dominant athlete in his sport. Fanelli just wanted to overcome.

So it was partway through the 2010-11 season that Fanelli re-worked his training regime with teammates Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan Murphy to train for his first triathlon. He had been working out and skating with the team during the season, but with no concrete date to return, Ben re-concentrated his efforts into something where he could view his results in a way to help cope with his loss of the game he loved.

It was at that same time that Fanelli, with the support of Landeskog, Murphy, and the Kitchener Rangers, announced the launch of his new initiative, Head Strong. A movement to raise both money and awareness for brain injuries, in the same way as Armstrong’s ‘LiveStrong’ foundation does for cancer.

Three months later, Ben completed the Milton Subaru Triathalon in just over two hours, carrying with him the new physical abilities he had gained from training, but the mental stability that came with overcoming all of his struggles of, what was then, a battle of more than a year-and-a-half.

Ben found a way to relate the triathalon to his life and how, while his body screamed at him to, he wasn’t going to stop biking, swimming or running to the finish line. While others suggested new careers and ideas away from the rink, he wasn’t going to stop pushing until he got to lace up the skates for real.

And following a summer of training, exploding on to the social media scene (Fanelli’s account BF4HeadStrong has 605 followers and is gaining recognition from some of social media’s finest), a golf tournament or two, and countless hours spent in the gym, Ben was finally where he wanted to be the morning of September 1st: On the ice in the Rangers’ first Blue vs. White game of training camp.

“It felt amazing to play. It was amazing to get out there with the players and just have fun” Ben gushed, hours after his first game. “I learned a lot watching from up top and seeing the ice. Now I’m out there trying to earn a spot on this team.”

For Spott and his coaching staff, they know exactly what they need to concentrate on with Ben. “The last thing we need to worry about is his conditioning” Spott quipped, “but there will be a degree of teaching and we all have to remember that he’s missed two years. That’s the important thing here.”

“We don’t (have very good perspective) in this sport. We lose perspective of things fairly quickly in hockey” Bienkowski stated in regards to his young defenseman’s return, highlighting it as one of the franchise’s proudest achievements.

You don’t have to talk to Ben Fanelli about perspective. He’s got that. And through that perspective has come a world full of new experiences and possibilities. He’s a leader now, a strong-willed young man who wasn’t even rendered speechless when he rode bikes alongside his idol, Lance Armstrong, in late August.

Now, as he looks out silently onto the ice he so longs to slice through in the heat of a game, he’s a strong-willed young man who’s a hockey player again.

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