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.