Put Up the Net Spectators don't want their views obstructed, but protecting fans, as European leagues do, should be an NHL priority

April 01, 2002

The puck that struck 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil in the head at
a Calgary Flames-Columbus Blue Jackets game in Columbus, Ohio,
on March 16 was the shot heard 'round the hockey world, a
horrific incident that resulted in her death two days later and
left the NHL scrambling to more thoroughly address the issue of
fan safety. Secure with the eight-foot-high protective glass
that shields the seats behind the goals in all of its arenas,
sensitive to the objections of fans who might not like viewing a
game through safety netting and riding an 84-year lucky
streak--Brittanie's was the first fan fatality at an NHL
game--the league did not anticipate this tragic, albeit
freakish, accident even though use of netting in arenas
worldwide is increasingly common.

Last season NHL general managers discussed installing the type
of netting that extends from the top of the glass to the face of
the upper deck and protects fans sitting behind the goals. It is
used in all major European rinks, in many arenas that host NCAA
Division I men's hockey, in 15 of 16 rinks in the Quebec Major
Junior Hockey League and even in the 14 rows of obstructed-view
seats at the Phoenix Coyotes' America West Arena. That debate
among NHL G.M.'s arose in the aftermath of a $3 million
settlement reached by the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks
and their player Joe Murphy, with fan Jonathan Liebert, who on
Feb. 6, 1999, was struck in the head by a puck fired into the
stands in a fit of pique by Murphy at the Great Western Forum.

According to the NHL the discussion has never advanced as far as
the Board of Governors. "This has not been an agenda item," NHL
executive vice president Bill Daly told SI last Saturday. "There
have been occasional puck injuries, but it's not an epidemic."

Daly says that an average of 200 NHL fans were injured by pucks
each season in the roughly 1,200 games played annually over the
past five years, a figure starkly at odds with a study done by an
emergency-room physician, Dave Milzman, in Washington, D.C. In a
paper presented to the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine,
Milzman reported that in 127 matches (including the pregame
warmup period) over three seasons in the late 1990s at
Washington's MCI Center, 122 fans were attended to by first-aid
stations in the arena because of puck injuries. Fifty-five were
sent to hospital emergency rooms. The most serious injury was
sustained by a two-year-old who was struck in the chest by a puck
and suffered a severe bruise. There were four eye injuries,
though none resulted in a loss of vision. Ninety of the injuries
required stitches.

Perhaps the discrepancy in statistics is no more than the
interpretation of what constitutes an injury, but there is no
disputing that pucks--six ounces of vulcanized rubber that has
been frozen to make it resistant to bouncing on the
ice--frequently fly into the seats: about a dozen times per
game. With bigger, stronger players and the widespread use of
carbon-fiber sticks that increase the velocity of shots, fans in
the stands behind the goals are at increased risk.

The shot that struck Brittanie, who was seated in Row S of
Section 121 at Nationwide Arena, was taken by Blue Jackets
center Espen Knutsen with an old-fashioned wood-and-fiberglass
Koho Pro stick and was deflected over the glass by Calgary
defenseman Derek Morris. "Game in and game out," Milzman says,
"hockey might pose the greatest threat to the fan in a premium
seat." (The injuries Milzman reported were sustained
disproportionately by women and children, suggesting that
inattention among some of hockey's newer fans contributes
substantially to such injuries.)

Among all spectator sports, auto racing has produced the most
fan fatalities in the U.S. since 1990. According to The
Charlotte Observer, over that span a total of 29 fans have died
and at least 70 others have been injured. The worst of those
incidents occurred during a CART race at Michigan Speedway in
July 1998, when three fans in the stands were struck and killed
by an airborne tire from the car of Adrian Fernandez, who had
crashed into a wall. (The speedway subsequently raised its fence
from 14 1/2 to 17 feet.) The baseball Hall of Fame says that four
fans have died after being struck by batted balls, only one in
the major leagues (box, above). The PGA reports that no gallery
member at a Tour event has died after being hit by an errant
golf ball, though on average one spectator per tournament is
struck. The death of Brittanie, who was attending her first NHL
game, was the fourth among hockey spectators since 1979. Two
others died in small Canadian rinks, and one was killed during
an exhibition match in Spokane.

"How many times do you find yourself thinking, Oh, my God, that
was a rocket. I can't believe it didn't hurt anybody," says
Toronto Maple Leafs executive vice president Ken Dryden. "The
danger always has been present."

There is a disclaimer on the back of all NHL tickets, and at
least one announcement is made at every game warning fans to be
aware of flying pucks--the NHL recommends specific language but
allows each team to fashion its announcements--and in the
aftermath of Brittanie's death, the tone and presentation of
those warnings have grown somber and insistent.

The most dangerous time for spectators would seem to be during
the 15-minute warmup, when there are a minimum of 40 players on
the ice and at least twice as many pucks. Many fans are still
entering the rink, and even those already in their seats are
only mildly attentive. To address that hazard, last season the
Nashville Predators installed netting behind the goals in the
Gaylord Entertainment Center that was to be removed before the
opening face-off. Engineers, however, couldn't get the mechanism
that unfurled and rolled up the netting to work properly. "In
the end, having a mechanical problem with the system turned out
to be a bigger safety issue than not having a net during
warmups," says Gerry Helper, the Predators' vice president of
communications. "We never used it."

Other than the Coyotes, who use netting because some of the
obstructed-view upper-level seats in the north end of America
West Arena hang over the ice, the only franchise known to
experiment with netting is Calgary. In 1993 Calgary installed
netting for one game and promptly removed it after an
overwhelmingly negative reaction from fans.

The complaints of fans--not to be taken lightly in any sport but
especially not in the NHL, a nearly $2 billion business that
receives roughly 60% of its revenue from the gate--have been the
invisible hand guiding spectator safety. Philadelphia Flyers
general manager Bob Clarke has long favored the installation of
netting at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, but every time
the possibility has been raised, fans have responded negatively.

"That shows the different attitude toward safety between Europe
and North America," says Szymon Szemberg, an official of the
International Ice Hockey Federation, which he says held urgent,
if futile, meetings behind the scenes at Salt Lake City in an
attempt to get the Olympic organizing committee to hang netting
at the E Center and The Peaks Ice Arena. (Netting was used at the
Nagano Games in 1998.) "People in North America are no less aware
of the danger than Europeans, but the business aspect is more
important than safety. It's more important for leagues to sell
tickets."

Clarke says that fans wouldn't even notice netting after a while.
Dryden agrees, comparing the adjustment to the ones goalies faced
when they started wearing masks in the 1960s. "The first few
times, fans would focus on the reality of it, just like people
notice any change," says Dryden, a Hall of Fame goalie. "Soon
they wouldn't."

Dryden says he recently met an old friend of his father's who
told him that his wife was struck in the face by a puck and lost
several teeth during a game at Maple Leaf Gardens in the
mid-1950s, an incident that prompted Leafs general manager Conn
Smythe to replace the chicken wire with plexiglass at the
venerable arena. Last year the city of Winnipeg strung netting
around the entire playing surface at 30 public rinks at a cost
of $44,000, not out of altruism but because of a high-energy
campaign led by Louise Lanthier, a woman who lost an eye after
being hit by a puck at her son's midget game.

Flyers center Keith Primeau always follows the flight of pucks
that sail into the stands. "It's the biggest fear I have in the
game," he says. As a child at Maple Leaf Gardens, Primeau was
sitting behind a woman who was struck in the side of the face
and cut. He, too, is a proponent of netting.

"Clearly objections to netting by our fans are a consideration,"
the NHL's Daly says. "Theoretically we could play the games in a
bubble and not risk any injury from flying pucks. But lots of
our fans want to hear, smell, taste our game. We have to balance
safety concerns and their desires. Until this week we had struck
a pretty good balance."

Now the league will consult with its 30 teams and reconsider the
shielding standards for spectators as well as arena medical
response to injuries from flying pucks. If all goes as
scheduled, a report will be made at the NHL Board of Governors
meeting in June--roughly the time Brittanie would have been
finishing eighth grade.

COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE SAFE HAVEN Fans sitting in the upper level behind the goals in Phoenix are spared injury from flying pucks because of the netting.

"How many times do you think, Oh, my God, that was a rocket,"
says Dryden. "The danger always has been present."

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)