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Michael Farber
April 01, 2002
Spectators don't want their views obstructed, but protecting fans, as European leagues do, should be an NHL priority
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April 01, 2002

Put Up The Net

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

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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� 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."

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