Last updated: January 12, 2011 11:48 am
Liambas finding a new balance
After national controversy, former OHLer settles in at UBC
VANCOUVER (CUP) — Going from training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs to skating with the UBC Thunderbirds over one weekend makes for quite a step down, even if UBC is “a pretty sweet school.”
“It was just weird, the whole transition,” said Michael Liambas. “In about 24 hours, I went from the top of the hockey world to — I don’t want to demean it, but the CIS isn’t the top.”
Liambas has been through quite a lot. His journey to a professional hockey career was derailed two years ago when the Ontario Hockey League suspended him for a hit that seriously injured an opponent.
During a game with the Erie Otters on Oct. 31, 2009, Liambas charged at Kitchener Rangers forward Ben Fanelli and laid him out with a vicious high hit.
Many in the hockey world have stood up for the Woodbridge, Ont. native, saying that it was a clean, legal hit and that the suspension was an injustice.
Others have vilified him as a symbol of what is wrong with the game. It’s ground that Liambas, who said he suffered a great deal of guilt and remorse over the incident, understandably doesn’t want to retread.
“It is what it is; whatever happens, happens, and that’s done right now,” he said.
Thunderbirds head coach Milan Dragicevic notes that the controversy was never a factor in UBC's decision to bring him in.
“He persevered and worked through it, he had a ton of support from his family. It was not an issue for us at all,” Dragicevic said, adding that he was looking for “high academic, attitude, character and work ethic” qualities when he was working to bring Liambas to UBC over the summer.
“He has fit in very well, works hard on and off the ice. He’s been a team player, truly loves the game and wants to get better.”
Concerns over scholarship funds played a part in him taking up UBC’s offer rather than heading to the minor leagues. But Liambas is welcoming the opportunity to focus on developing his game and rebuilding his hockey career.
“When I first got here I had a bit of a negative attitude,” Liambas admitted. “I was a bit upset about the way things had worked out with Toronto.
“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. 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.”
Academics were also an adjustment he had to make when he added a full course load in human kinetics to playing hockey.
“It’s been four years since I’ve been in high school. Time management was the hardest part, but I’ve got it down pretty good right now.”
Despite settling into the university lifestyle, Liambas is still looking towards a professional hockey career.
“I still have that as my end goal, that’s what I’m working towards every day," he explained. "My outlook is, this is where I need to be right now to learn some things before I can move onto the next step. I’m good at school, just because whatever anyone does, you try to do the best you can, but I’ve never really thought of doing anything else other than playing hockey. That’s still my goal.
And while he doesn’t enjoy being a symbol of the debate occurring in the sport right now, as someone whose life has been profoundly affected by it, he’s concerned about the direction hockey is going and thinks all players have to take more responsibility for protecting each other, as well as themselves.
“Nowadays, the guy that’s making the hit has to protect the guy he’s hitting. There are hardworking guys who have to straddle that line; obviously sometimes you’re going to slip up. The main thing is to make sure you learn from it and you don’t let it happen again," Liambas said.
Did the 21-year-old, who had started as a defenceman and was only moved into forward while at Erie, find himself typecast as an enforcer or a goon in the junior and minor leagues?
“I don’t know if I fit myself into it or my coaches did, but I’m the type of guy where your hockey team are your brothers, your family, and you’re going make sure you protect them.” By the time he’d ended up with Bloomington in the OHL after his suspension that was the kind of player he was known as.
Liambas now feels he’s fulfilling the UBC coaching staff’s desire to bring more leadership to the team.
“I was kind of in a leadership role in junior. I don’t know what it is; I don’t have to think about it, it just comes, just speaking up on the bench, and it’s just leadership through working hard in practice.”
And as Liambas is making progress, so is the team.
“I can’t come out and guarantee we’re going to win the nationals or anything,” he said, “but really the main goal right now is to make the playoffs and I think that’s attainable and very realistic.”