If there’s a blueprint to recovery after a traumatic brain injury, Ben Fanelli is prototype.
Eight years after suffering a fractured skull as a 16-year-old rookie in the Ontario Hockey League — an incident that left him hospitalized and at risk of needing brain surgery — the former Kitchener Ranger is happy, healthy, and showing no signs of slowing down.
These days, Fanelli sits on the board of directors of the EMPWR Foundation, a charitable movement driven towards concussion recovery that he spearheaded in the two years after his 2009 injury. He’s an assistant coach with the University of Waterloo men’s hockey team, and in his spare time, he runs his own fitness company.
Remarkable, considering his odds of recovery all those years ago. After being checked into the boards behind his own net, the Rangers rookie’s helmet came off and his head hit the metal stanchion holding the panes of glass together. He went unconscious.
The hit sent shockwaves through the hockey community. Well-wishes came all the way from Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada. Fanelli was airlifted to the hospital and has no recollection of the 24-hours surrounding the injury.
“[The doctor] said that sports were completely out of the question for the rest of my life,” says Fanelli. “He said that if I did go to school, I would need two years off and would need a teaching assistant in all my classes. And the scariest thing he had for me was that I may not be the same person I was the first 16 years of my life.”
“When I came to in the hospital, I remember the doctor was standing to my right and my mom was sitting to my left, and as I started to come to, my mom asked, ‘Ben, do you know why you’re here?’ And instantly, I started to tear up, because I had no concept or idea why I was in that hospital bed.” – Ben Fanelli
So began a two-year recovery process during which Fanelli — undeterred — prepared himself for a shot at returning.
“What I came to realize was that if and ever I was able to play the game of hockey again, it would have to be step-by-step and [by] slowly chip[ping] away,” he says. “The concept I came to understand and that gave me hope was that each day’s an opportunity to bring yourself that much closer to whatever that goal is. So say my odds were very low to start with, each day you can add half a percent, and then the next day, another half percent.”
Newly motivated and energized, Fanelli eventually moved back to Kitchener to continue his recovery. In 2011, he launched Head Strong: Fanelli for Brain Injury Awareness (now EMPWR) and trained to compete in a triathlon.
“I walked into [head coach Steve Spott’s] office, and he said, ‘Ben, you’re a part of this team for the next five years if you want to be. We’re going to leave your stall there; that’s your spot. Your role’s going to be up to you.’ And that was just the beginning of an incredible two years of support.” – Ben Fanelli
“There were times I would go into [a coffee shop],” says Fanelli, “and people would stop and say, ‘Hey, I hope to see you playing again, but if not, I wish you the best with whatever you do with your life.’”
On September 23rd, 2011, that day finally came.
Fanelli made his return to the Rangers lineup to a standing ovation. The following year, he was named the OHL’s Humanitarian of the Year — the first Kitchener Ranger ever to win the award. Two years later, he was voted team captain.
As for the years to come, only time will tell.
“It’s amazing what you can overcome when you have the right people around you,” says Fanelli.