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.