Death of a Fan The deflected puck that felled Brittanie Cecil left her small Ohio town reeling and has the rest of us wondering about an accident that didn't have to happen

April 01, 2002

Talking on the phone, watching the Miami Dolphins and shopping
for clothes at the Dayton Mall were among the things that put
her in a good mood, and you could poll the entire population of
West Alexandria, Ohio, (which wouldn't take long) without
discovering a single thing that put her in a bad one. Brittanie
Nichole Cecil was a smart, athletic and vibrant small-town
teenager who spread good cheer even when she wasn't
cheerleading--and that's what makes her loss all the more
devastating to the people who knew her. How could death come so
early to someone so full of life?

There were tears, to be sure, as the mourners gathered at
Brittanie's grave site last Friday, but the expressions on their
faces were more stunned than sad, as if her friends and family
still couldn't believe that a freak accident had taken her from
them. Brittanie's first trip to a hockey game should have ended
with a hug for her father, who bought the tickets as an early
14th birthday present for her, not with an ambulance ride to the
Columbus Children's Hospital emergency room. She should have
left Nationwide Arena on March 16 with a Columbus Blue Jackets
pennant to hang in her bedroom next to all her Dolphins
paraphernalia, not with a damaged vertebral artery that would
ultimately prove fatal (box, page 60). She was watching the Blue
Jackets play the Calgary Flames when a slap shot by Columbus
center Espen Knutsen was deflected by Calgary defenseman Derek
Morris with 12:18 left in the second period. The puck struck
Brittanie, sitting more than 100 feet behind the glass in Row S
of Section 121, in the left temple. She died two days later, the
first spectator fatality in the 85-year history of the NHL.

If she had turned her head a fraction of an inch, or bent over
to pick up a soda, it probably would have been just another puck
sailing into the stands, with no major harm done. Brittanie
would still be enjoying the small-town charms of West
Alexandria, population 1,500, a farming town 90 miles west of
Columbus. West Alex, as its residents often call it, has no
supermarket, no bar and no crime rate. If you lock your door at
night in West Alex, you must be new to town.

According to one of many local traditions, whenever one of the
West Alex youth sports teams fares well in an out-of-town
tournament, police cars and fire trucks greet the team bus at
the city limits and lead the conquering heroes through the
tree-lined streets, sirens blaring. Brittanie's soccer team, the
Orange Crush, received that kind of special treatment when they
reached the state tournament as 11-year-olds. They didn't get a
parade, but mayor Carol Lunsford proclaimed the day Orange Crush
Day. "In this town, by the time you're 12, you've probably
already been in two or three parades," says Sam Shortes, editor
of the Twin Valley News, West Alex's weekly newspaper.

Last Friday, however, it was a somber procession of more than 150
cars that passed through the streets, following the black hearse
that carried Brittanie's silver casket from the Preble Memory
Gardens Chapel to Fairview Cemetery. The caravan passed the
soccer field where she played so many games, and Twin Valley
South Middle School, where she had been a student council member
and an honor student.

"In a town this size it's hard to go anywhere without seeing
something that reminds you of her," says Bill Deleranko, who was
Brittanie's soccer coach. Her mother and father, Jody Sergent and
David Cecil, who are divorced and have both remarried, were so
grief-stricken that they declined all interview requests. "Our
loss is overwhelming and the pain we are enduring is unbearable,"
they said in a statement.

Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean, who represented the
team at the funeral, spoke for the organization. "I cannot
imagine the grief the family is experiencing," he said. "They
have our deepest sympathy."

For Knutsen and Morris, the knowledge that pucks flying into the
stands is a common occurrence was small consolation. "You try to
say, 'It happens all the time,' but you can't," Morris says. "I
don't know how many times pucks get deflected over the glass, but
it doesn't make it any better. You can always say, 'It's not my
fault,' but you always feel like it is, a little." Blue Jackets
coach Dave King gave Knutsen the option of sitting out the March
20 game against the Minnesota Wild, the first match following
Brittanie's death. Knutsen chose to play, but he has had trouble
sleeping since the incident. "I think about it all the time," he
says. "It was a terrible accident, and I cannot get it off my
mind."

On the fateful play Knutsen sped over the blue line with the puck
and wound up for a shot at the top of the left circle. Morris,
seeing that he didn't have time to put a body on Knutsen, placed
his stick on the ice in front of the puck, just as the Columbus
center took the shot. The puck, six ounces of frozen rubber, flew
upward and over the eight-foot plexiglass atop the boards at the
end of the rink, first striking Brittanie and then grazing
another fan. The players looked toward the stands but didn't
realize until after the game that anyone had been seriously hurt.
Although the shot had fractured her skull, Brittanie's only
visible injury was a gash on her head. She walked to a first-aid
station and later to an ambulance. It wasn't until she reached
the hospital that she had a seizure; at that point doctors
admitted her for observation.

The Blue Jackets, who held a moment of silence before their first
home game following Brittanie's death, last Thursday against the
Detroit Red Wings, will wear heart-shaped decals with her
initials on their helmets for the remainder of the season.
Knutsen, for one, will remember the incident far longer than
that. "I'm the one who shot the puck, and I have to live with
that," he says. His teammates have told him that he did nothing
wrong, and the Columbus fans have tried to do the same thing.
When Knutsen was stopped by Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek on a
first-period breakaway, the spectators gave him a standing
ovation, as if to tell him he was not to blame for the tragedy.

Brittanie's death sparked discussions about the safety measures
taken to protect fans at sporting events and raised questions
about legal liability when spectators are injured or killed (box,
page 63). But to the residents of West Alexandria, those issues
mattered far less than the loss of one of their own. "You feel
tragedies like this even more deeply in a community as close as
this one," says Deleranko. "This is a small town, but it's a big
family."

That family will remember Brittanie's enthusiasm most of all. "I
don't think I ever saw her in a bad mood," says Tara Milliken,
13, one of her soccer teammates and closest friends. "She had so
much excitement in her that she was always ready to let it out."
But Brittanie also had a toughness that matched her ebullience.
When she injured her left arm during a soccer game last fall, she
was heartbroken when Deleranko ordered her to come out of the
game. X-rays later showed that she'd broken the arm. "Our next
game was two days later," says Deleranko, "and there she was on
the sideline, yelling her heart out and supporting the team."

Brittanie loved to play soccer, even in the rain or the mud or in
the kind of frigid weather that hit West Alex the day of her
funeral. It was an early spring afternoon, but it still felt like
winter. As they left the chapel, some of the mourners turned up
the collars of their coats to block the biting wind. There was a
chill running through them, and they needed to picture Brittanie
as her teammates often saw her, running and smiling and having
fun, so that her spirit could warm them.

COLOR PHOTO: PAT TAYLOR/ZUMA PRESS COVER SPECIAL REPORT THE DEATH OF A FAN WHAT THE NHL SHOULD DO ABOUT SAFETY IS BASEBALL MORE DANGEROUS THAN HOCKEY? Brittanie Cecil is memorialized by her initials in a heart on the helmet of Espen Knutsen COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS PUTMAN/AP (KNUTSEN) COVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PAT TAYLOR/ZUMA PRESS COLOR PHOTO: LAURA FARR/ZUMA PRESS WHEN THE CHEERING STOPPED The casket of Brittanie Cecil is loaded into a hearse for her final ride through West Alexander--to a cemetery in that close-knit farming community. COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKHOHN HAUNTED Knutsen (far right) and his Columbus teammates observed a moment of silence for Brittanie before a game last week.

"I think about it all the time," Knutsen says. "It was a
terrible accident, and I cannot get it off my mind."

Brittanie's first hockey game should have ended with a hug for
her father, not with a ride in an ambulance.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)