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OHL's Branch a man of courage

If you're an American-based hockey fan, chances are you've never heard of David Branch. He's Commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, one of the prime feeder agents of young talent in North America. He's also President of the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella agency for all of the country's major junior organizations that have forever produced most of the players who populate the NHL and other pro leagues worldwide.

He's also known as one tough guy.

Not tough in the rough-and-tumble way that epitomizes hockey and, especially, the junior game, but tough in terms of being a fair-but-strong disciplinarian. Branch is a man who means what he says and, after thoughtful consideration, says what he means and backs it up with rulings that have made him something of a rarity in sport: a man who governs by conviction instead of the bottom line.

I mention Branch because in the last 24 hours he has made a ruling that is both controversial and courageous. He did what a lot of sports bosses never do: he suspended a player for a hit that may have been technically legal, but was morally wrong.

Try doing that in the NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL!

By way of background, Branch took a long and insightful look at a hit by 20-year-old Michael Liambas on 16-year-old Ben Fanelli, who wastaking his first tentative steps in the OHL. Fanelli was behind the net trying to make a play with the puck for his Kitchener Rangers when Liambas, a veteran with the Erie Otters who is commonly referred to as an "overage" junior, started coming at him -- hard.

Look at the play any way you want, but if you bring it down to its essence, Liambas never stopped. As a result, he splattered the younger, smaller, lighter player all over the boards and glass. It's a play you see quite often, but when this one was over, Fanelli had a fractured skull and was bleeding and motionless when the stretcher was brought out. He was immediately flown to a big city hospital in Hamilton, Ont. where doctors worked not just to stabilize him, but save his life.

As of today, Fanelli is off the critical list and listed as stable but serious. There's a very good chance -- though still only a chance -- he will survive, but his once-promising career (he was on the must-see list of a number of scouts) is in doubt.

The initial response was typical of hockey: an "unfortunate" occurrence, just something that happens in a physical game. Liambas, they said, never left his feet, never used his elbow (he did, however, get major penalties) and, according to purists and defenders of the manly man's game, did what he was supposed to do. He took an opponent out hard and used all of his speed, strength and the boards and glass to do it. It's something players are taught and coached to do.

Branch saw it differently. He reviewed the tapes, talked with everyone involved and suspended Liambas for the rest the season. Given that Liambas was in the final year of his junior eligibility, he was, in essence, suspended for life. Old school hockey people are in an uproar. They argue that Branch's decision is remarkably harsh (especially because in the NHL such a hit would fall somewhere between no suspension to perhaps three or five games). They argue that you can't penalize a player for playing physically and that there was nothing outside the norm other than someone getting seriously hurt -- a byproduct of the way the game is played.

Branch, however, is confident in his decision. "There were two very important factors," he said in explaining why Liambas, who is truly sorry and terribly shaken by Fanelli's injuries, has been dismissed from the league. "Distance travelled and the speed in which he was travelling. In our view, it was excessive speed. Somehow, some way, we have to get people to appreciate this, to understand respect. Michael suggested in his view it was not an illegal hit. But like most things, you can argue such points. The nature of the injury played a role in the decision. And given the situation, I had to consider what would be best."

Branch suspended Liambas simply because the player had both the time and the opportunity to pull up but didn't. It's a gutsy call that brought down wrath, but these kinds of hits have plagued hockey for years, and in the NHL they've reached an epidemic, but hockey people say it's simply something that comes with the territory.

Branch is saying they are wrong.

I can't agree with one part of his ruling. I have long argued that the extent of an injury or lack of same should never be a contributing factor in a suspension. I've seen hits that were more violent than the one Liambas put on Fanelli, but through the grace of God, the athletic ability of the person being hit, or sheer dumb luck, no one got hurt. In hockey, especially the NHL, that often equates to no harm-no foul, and that's simply wrong. But in every other aspect, Branch is right. It takes a certain amount of courage to say the status quo is wrong, and in handing out a season suspension (and quite possibly ending any chance of Liambas having a career beyond the junior level), Branch is saying these kinds of hits must stop.

Branch was charged with looking out for not just the potential careers of his charges, but their well-being. His message is one that the NHL will be hard pressed to ignore. A significant voice drew a line in the ever-shifting argument about how the game is played. In a sense, his ruling is against what may well be the essence of hockey: the idea that you can hit as hard as humanly possible as long as the hit is "clean" -- which usually means feet on the ice, elbows down, no predetermined attempt to aim a blow to the head, hit the player from behind or when he is in some other defenseless position while in possession of the puck -- or mere seconds after.

Branch said no, that old, largely-ignored rules like charging and boarding matter and hockey must consider that speed, size, force and mass must be taken into consideration. The game, though always physical, has changed, and hockey must acknowledge that for the benefit of the sport and the safety of players who, even at the junior level, are bigger, faster, stronger, better-coached and better-equipped than at any time. If hockey doesn't recognize and come to grips with that, a player is going to die. In handing down his ruling, Branch is also saying that if it does happen somewhere, it won't be in his league on his watch.

Such a ruling is in direct contrast to what's going on in the NHL. Players can't pull up and expect to keep their jobs. Boarding and charging are almost never called. The ice has been opened up so players skate longer distances at greater speeds and use their velocity to increase the force with which they hit opponents. Though it was never in the rules, smart, experienced players used to have a certain amount of protection when they went behind the net for the puck. It wasn't legal, but defensemen might set a pick to at least slow down the onrushing player, thus allowing a teammate to play the puck safely. Opposing players would often slow up and station themselves in front of the net, knowing that to chase the puck behind it could lead to an easy breakout pass.

But even those inherent checks are out of balance. A pick play is now interference and most players are coached to start the breakout the moment the puck goes behind the net. Worse, most are told to go in fast and deep with the idea that if there is any hesitation or delay by the puck-carrier, he can be taken out with a big hit along the boards thereby creating an offensive opportunity. That was pretty much the case when Liambas went after Fenelli. The younger player had just a moment's hesitation in retrieving the puck and it was then that Liambas had a decision to make. He chose to do what he had been taught. The results were there for Branch and everyone in hockey to see.

Branch said no more. This must stop. It's a controversial call, but only Neanderthals who can't see where the game is and is going can argue against it. In the NHL, that's a rather large number. Given the voting the last time GMs got together, they're fine with the carnage they see on an almost nightly basis. I wouldn't bet the price of a Phoenix Coyotes ticket on it changing anytime soon.

A decision like Branch's takes courage, leadership and an unfailing sense of what is right and wrong even if it comes contrary to the majority opinion. The OHL and the CHL have an administrator who has created and implanted rules to cut down on fighting and blows to the head, make neck guards mandatory to protect against errant skates, and required cinched-down helmets to better prevent concussions. He demanded that players keep their helmets on during fights, a rule that by logical extension has significantly cut down on bouts.

We have yet to see an administrator who's willing to make a bold ruling that involves a franchise's star who turns puts people in the seats and turns a profit. But Branch has made the tough calls as they come, and he's been doing it for a long time in a league that is not only surviving, but flourishing north of the border and in some markets in the U.S. It's not just the NHL that could learn from a man like that, we all could.

It used to be a given that leadership wasn't only about producing profit. It used to include simply doing the right thing no matter the cost. You don't see that much in sports anymore, but you see it in Dave Branch. He doesn't just say the right thing, he does the right thing, and hockey, at least at his level, is far better for it.

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