The Toronto Maple Leafs will have a controversial player in their mix when the team's rookie tournament opens on Saturday in London, Ont., as former Erie Otters winger Michael Liambas has been offered a chance to earn a minor-league job with the Toronto Marlies.
Liambas is best known for being booted out of the OHL last season for an ugly hit that left 16-year-old Kitchener Rangers defenceman Ben Fanelli convulsing on the ice.
Fanelli spent time in hospital after suffering a skull fracture and has yet to return to hockey. Liambas was exiled to the IHL after he was suspended for the remainder of his final junior hockey season.
Leafs general manager Brian Burke said on Tuesday that he felt the punishment Liambas was given was too harsh and wanted to give him a chance to play. The invitation to try out for the Leafs organization was extended soon after Liambas was first suspended, but he didn't accept Burke's offer until this summer.
Liambas's hockey resumé is modest. He played some defence for the Otters but became mainly a fourth-line plugger, putting up only five goals, eight assists and 357 penalty minutes in 124 games.
Those who know Liambas well, however, say that the one hit shouldn't define his career, and point to the fact he is a straight-A student and was chosen the Otters' humanitarian of the year for his charity work as evidence he isn't merely a one-dimensional thug.
"It was one of those hits where everything went wrong," Otters GM Sherry Bassin said. "Nobody likes the results of that. But this kid is not a goofball kind of kid. This kid had well over a 90 average at St. Mike's [high school]
"He's a hard-nosed player and plays hard, but I mean, he's not a goon. Sometimes when something as dramatic as that incident happens, you get an automatic label."
Bassin said Liambas had multiple other offers, including quite a few that included scholarships to Canadian universities. The University of British Columbia was heavily recruiting him given his combined academic and athletic ability.
Bassin lauded Burke for being the one to give Liambas another chance.
"As gruff as Brian Burke might seem, he's a big-hearted guy," Bassin said. "I've known that for years. He's always been the guy to give guys an extra chance. If they're good people, he'll give a guy a chance."
Other players of note who will be taking part in the Leafs' four-day rookie tournament include top draft picks Nazem Kadri (2009, first round), Jerry D'Amigo (2009, sixth round), Keith Aulie (2007, fourth round) and Brad Ross (2010, second round).
Two European free agent additions, netminder Jussi Rynnas and left winger Marcel Mueller, from the Finnish and German leagues, respectively, are also expected to make an impact, although Kadri is likely to be the only rookie to make the Leafs immediately.