UBC tone deaf over concussed hockey player

After Liambas hit, university hockey gets national attention for all the wrong reasons

Friday night at a local hockey game, two players got into a fight. One was bloodied up, while the other one walks away smiling.

Pretty simple right? Probably happens dozens of times every night across this country. Probably has for decades.

Except the game was a university match between UBC and Alberta. The Alberta player who was bloodied up was also concussed, courtesy of his head hitting the ice. And the UBC player doling out the punishment was Mike Liambas, best known for being kicked out of the Ontario Hockey League after a bodycheck that fractured the skull of Kitchener’s Ben Fanelli (the video is not for the faint of heart).

And now, university hockey gets national headlines, for all the wrong reasons.

I wasn’t at the game, but from talking to people who were, it seems that Liambas didn’t do anything more vicious then what you would normally see in a fight (take that for what you will). And Liambas, despite his reputation, is a smart kid (an honours student in high school), who was looking forward to going to school, playing hockey, and moving on from a moment that made him a national symbol for violence in hockey.

“After everything I’ve been through, the best route for my life right now is for some mental stability and just settling it down for a bit,” he told The Ubyssey last year. “I’m getting my school done and paid for and I’m still playing hockey. I’ll be able to work on the offensive side of my game, instead of worrying about fighting.”

Now, he’s being called a “bad-boy” in the Toronto Sun, someone who “couldn’t control his base urges” by respected junior hockey writer Neate Sager, and generally derided coast to coast. Again.

But for his faults, Liambas shouldn’t be the story here. Alberta captain Eric Hunter is the one with the concussion.

“I have a kid [Hunter] in business, an honour’s student and an academic all-Canadian,” his head coach said to The Globe and Mail after the game. “What happens with him going to school? With his exams? Hockey is hockey. These guys are preparing for academic life. What if he has to sit out the semester?”

To date, UBC has been silent, outside of head coach Milan Dragicevic. He defended Liambas, arguing that Hunter speared him first, and that while he doesn’t condone his actions, “right or wrong, quick decisions are made on the ice and sometimes they are not the right decisions. Maybe Michael Liambas has to control his emotions a little bit more on the ice but, as a person, you’re not going to find a more outstanding individual.”

I’m sorry, but here’s a player who once gave an opponent a fractured skull, has now concussed an opponent to national attention, and the only acknowledgment of wrong-doing is first blaming the other guy for starting it, before saying “Liambas has to control his emotions a little bit more on the ice.”

If that’s only response anyone from from the university is going to make, it’s tone deaf to the seriousness of concussions. We’re having a national conversation about headshots, UBC has been placed into it, whether they like it or not. This isn’t 1990, or 2005, or even 2010.

It’s 2011, where on the first day of the year Sidney Crosby got hit in the head and hit the ice hard, a few days later he hit the ice again, and since then hasn’t played.

It’s 2011, where former Pro Bowl defensive back Dave Duerson can shoot himself in the head, write a suicide note that reads “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK,” and everyone understands that neurologists will see if the effects of repeated concussions caused him to lose mental acumen.

We’re now at the point the only defense against soft-pedaling the impact that concussions can have on the body is ignorance. A decade’s worth of studies have shown that there is no greater risk to an athlete’s long-term health then whether his head gets smashed around. As the Globe’s Stephen Brunt puts it:

Apologies to those bored by the concussion conversation, but there’s the troubling truth once again. Blow out a knee and someone will try to repair it, someone will lay out a timetable of healing and rehab and therapy and provide a pretty solid answer as to when you might be back at full strength and the chances that you might be just like new again.

Injure your brain and there’s none of the above, and the answer to that last part is sometimes never.

I understand that when you coach a team your support for players is unconditional. And I know that, by all accounts, Liambas did not attempt to seriously injure. But I hope that Dragicevic does not speak for UBC, or university hockey coaches in general, when it comes to soft-pedaling concussions and fighting. The risks our best and brightest face are too serious to dismiss in that way.

UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long for the other shoe to drop, as Liambas has decided to leave UBC. From the Vancouver Sun…

Controversial forward Michael Liambas, who has a history of violence on the ice, has left the UBC Thunderbirds hockey program after just one season. Liambas, 22, was involved in another incident last Friday against the Alberta Golden Bears in which he injured Bears captain Eric Hunter in an altercation…

“Michael has decided to leave UBC and pursue professional hockey,” Dragicevic confirmed Wednesday, offering no further comment.

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