Hockey death raises questions about fans' safety

Thursday, March 21, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The NHL is looking at arena safety following the death of a 13-year-old girl who was hit in the forehead by a puck that flew into the stands.

Brittanie Cecil died two days after a deflected slap shot struck her at a Columbus Blue Jackets game, raising questions about the responsibilities of teams and arenas to protect fans. It was the first such fatality in league history.

NHL spokesman Frank Brown said Wednesday the league would "look at everything" to ensure fan safety, although he did not provide details.

"We believe our buildings are safe and history overwhelmingly has proven us right," he said. "We have entertained hundreds of millions of spectators over our 85 seasons and we are devastated that this tragic accident took place."

The Blue Jackets plan to wear the girl's initials on their helmets for the rest of the season, and will hold a moment of silence before Thursday night's game against the Detroit, the Blue Jackets' first at home since the death. The team also will promote a memorial fund set up by Brittanie's family.

Her parents released a statement, signed "The Family of Brittanie Cecil," on Wednesday night:

"During our time of grief and bereavement our family is trying to make some sense of this tragedy. Our loss is overwhelming and the pain the we are enduring is unbearable.

"Brittanie was a sweet, beautiful and loving young girl, who brought joy to all her family, friends and acquaintances. We all loved her very much and will miss her dearly. We know she is with God now and we will celebrate her life and memory forever."

Meanwhile, a coroner determined Wednesday that Brittanie died from a rare injury to an artery that was damaged when her head snapped back.

The damage to the artery, which runs from the spine to the back of the brain, led to a "vicious cycle" of clotting in the artery and swelling of the brain, said Franklin County Coroner Brad Lewis, who performed the autopsy.

"The puck struck her in the forehead, causing a skull fracture and some bruising of the brain in the area," Lewis said. "But that wasn't what led to her death. It was the snapping back of the head and the damage to that artery."

Lewis said he consulted with other pathologists on the rarity of the injury. He said that a fellow pathologist had not encountered a similar injury and death in more than 25 years as a doctor.

The eighth-grader at Twin Valley South Middle School near Dayton had been at Children's Hospital in Columbus since being hurt Saturday night and died there late Monday afternoon. She remained conscious until Monday morning, Lewis said.

Brittanie, who would have turned 14 on Wednesday, was sitting about 15 rows above the ice at Nationwide Arena and behind the goal when the puck, 6 ounces of hard, frozen rubber, came flying into the stands.

The puck, which can travel over 100 mph, was shot by Columbus center Espen Knutsen and caromed off Calgary defenseman Derek Morris' stick. The puck also hurt two other fans after hitting the teen-ager.

"I think about it all the time," Knutsen, from Norway, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press after a morning workout before the Blue Jackets' night game against the Wild. "I think about her family because I have family myself. It was just a horrible accident."

Break-resistant glass sheets that surround the rinks at all NHL arenas are 8 feet high and the height of the boards can range from 40-48 inches. Still, pucks often fly into the stands, causing injuries.

Brown said the league does not log injury reports on fans and that figures on the numbers of fans treated at hospitals was "maintained internally."

America West Arena in Phoenix is the only NHL venue with netting that protects spectators besides the glass. The netting is necessary because of an overhang in a balcony.

Fans are warned about the dangers at games by a disclaimer on the back of each ticket that says, "Pucks flying into spectator areas can cause serious injury. Be alert." But alertness can provide only so much safety on pucks.

Two years ago, Chad Hildebrand was at a senior men's hockey league game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when a puck flew into the crowd and glanced off a friend's head before hitting him in the temple.

The 21-year-old Hildebrand went home, collapsed and fell into a coma. After a week, he was taken off life support and died.

His father, Nick, does not believe it was just bad fortune that his son was in the path of the errant shot. The family sued, but the case has not been resolved.

"A freak accident is a meteor falling out of the skies and striking you. I call this a preventable accident," he said.

Many lawyers say the disclaimers on the backs of tickets don't absolve teams or venues.

"Ninety-nine times out of 100 here in Canada, it doesn't matter whether or not there's a disclaimer on the ticket," said Marcel Jodoin, an attorney from suburban Winnipeg who represents Nick Hildebrand. "Because you don't get the ticket until after you've paid. The courts up here have said you can't impose new terms into a contract after the contract's been made."

Jim Elliott, a Michigan attorney who has represented fans injured at games, said it won't be long before teams realize that it's cheaper to put up nets and higher break-resistant glass to protect fans.

"I said a couple of years back that in 10 years it's going to be different," Elliott said. "The sporting venues are going to be different. It's unfortunate that people have to lose their eyesight or lose their life."

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