Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua
In the case of Mike Liambas, history does give second chances.
On Oct. 31, 2009, Liambas, then in his third season with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, took the ice for a normal Friday night regular season game against the Kitchener Rangers. Midway through the second period, as the Rangers held on to a 2-0 lead against the Otters, Erie dumped the puck into Kitchener’s zone and tried to get fresh legs on the ice.
Ben Fanelli, the closest player near the action, chased down the puck and went to corral it behind the goaltender. As he quickly cleared the puck from behind the net, Liambas lined up a hit and delivered. What followed can only be best described as a blur. Liambas was quickly ushered off the ice by the officials while Fanelli lay motionless for several minutes as paramedics carefully loaded him on a stretched and airlifted him to Hamilton General Hospital. While Fanelli would later make a full recovery, the injuries sustained that night were disastrous: a facial laceration above his eye, skull fractures, and a resulting brain injury.
Liambas was suspended for the rest of the OHL’s season four days later. His junior career had ended on the ice that Friday night in Kitchener.
Standing in front of his locker this past Tuesday in Nashville, Liambas soaked it all in. A different player than on that late fall evening in southern Ontario.
“That’s in my past. That’s four years ago, however long it was, it’s behind me now. I don’t even talk or think about it anymore,” said Liambas.
Liambas is in Nashville to take part in the Predators 2013 Prospect Development Camp, an annual summer program that most NHL teams hold to further develop the skills of the prospects that are signed into each team’s farm system. However he’s not here on any type of invite or professional tryout, but as a member of the Milwaukee Admirals.
The oldest player attending Nashville’s prospect camp this year, Liambas’ trip to the Music City isn’t just to build his skills, but to leave a lasting impression on both the management and his teammates.
“I just want to make an impact and lead the way for a bunch of the younger guys. I feel like a junior again with all of these younger guys,” said Liambas, who turned 24 this past February. “I want to make an impact, making sure everyone remembers my name when I leave. From all the players to management and staff, everyone.”
Liambas’ path to his current position isn’t a normal one, far from it. After finding himself in the International Hockey League (now known as the United Hockey League) with the Bloomington Prairie Thunder after his suspension in the OHL, Liambas joined the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds while studying Human Kinetics.
Following another late season suspension after an altercation against Alberta Golden Bears captain Eric Hunter, Liambas left the Thunderbirds and signed a contract with the Cincinnati Cyclones, Nashville’s minor league affiliate in the East Coast Hockey League. He would spend the next season and a half with the Cyclones, building his name and trying to remove the negative image that had been hovering over the past year.
“I obviously had a black cloud over my head for a while. I got to a point where, I guess matured to a point where, thinking about that or worrying about that wouldn’t do anything for me,” said Liambas. “You just have to put it behind you and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else says or thinks. I had to look at myself in the mirror and know I was okay with myself. As long as I can do that, nothing else really matters.”
One game into the 2012-2013 season with the Cyclones, his second full season in the ECHL, Liambas was traded to the Orlando Solar Bears. It was there where Liambas would finally get the chance that he had worked the last 3 years for, a chance to prove himself in the American Hockey League.
As he recalled the moments leading up to being loaned to the Admirals for what would be the final 27 games of the AHL regular season, including two postseason games, Liambas beamed as he described what it felt like to make the next jump in his professional career:
“I was playing for Orlando and my coaching staff knew about five days before [about being loaned to Milwaukee], they said my flight was booked. I was actually playing defense for a month right before then, because we were short on D and I was a defenseman my whole life, up until my second year of juniors. I was playing D and then that last weekend where they knew I was coming up to Milwaukee, they put me up on forward and had me practice on forward again. It was a good feeling. They came in the room after a Saturday night game, it was a big win for us I remember. Coach [Drake] Berehowsky [then the coach of the Orlando Solar Bears] just gave his regular speech and then he’s like ‘Boys I have some news, Bussy’s going up to Milwaukee.’ Everyone was happy for me. It was a great feeling. It was something I’ve been working for for a while.”
Liambas finished the season with one goal, his first career AHL goal coming against the Abbotsford Heat, and 74 penalty minutes. He added an assist and 32 penalty minutes in his two postseason games, as well. Just a couple weeks after their first round playoff loss to the Texas Stars, Liambas signed his first AHL contract with the Admirals.
“It was great. It’s good to not worry about [what happens] over the summer, to know what I’m training for for next year and where I’m going. I’m happy because we have an unbelievable group of guys in that locker room. Chemistry-wise, it’s the best team that I’ve ever played on,” said Liambas. “It was a treat to go to the [locker room] every single day. Everyone was like brothers; sometimes it’s not like that. A lot of times it’s not like that. I can’t wait to see what it’s like for next year. We have a good core group of guys [in Milwaukee] that will still be sticking around. It will be enjoyable again.”
They say history likes to repeat itself, however for Liambas it’s a story of the opposite. It’s a story of a player who fought to escape the past, making every game count as if it had the potential to be his last. When the dust clears, though, Milwaukee is just another step in his battle to the top.
“I’m not satisfied with just being there, obviously, but it’s a good step in the right direction,” said Liambas. “Once you’re satisfied and get comfortable, that’s when you get in trouble and someone else takes your job. Always gotta keep clawing.”