NHL approves spectator safety nets

Friday, June 21, 2002

TORONTO -- NHL arenas will have a different look next season as part of the league's response to safety concerns for fans.

Netting will be hung behind the goals following the death last March of a 13-year-old girl who was struck in the head by a puck.

At its meeting Thursday, the NHL's Board of Governors ordered installation of the nets as well as standardizing the height of the glass around the rink to a minimum of 5 feet.

The decision follows the death of Brittanie Cecil, who was hit by a deflected slap shot last March 16 at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. She died two days later after an injury to an artery in her neck caused internal bleeding, the first documented death of a fan from being struck by a puck at an NHL game.

Although a league report found its arenas to be safe, commissioner Gary Bettman said, "We're doing it because we think it's the right thing to do after what has happened."

The netting will hang from the ceiling, and rest on top of the glass. It will be hung across the end zones, stretching from the corners of the rink.

Bettman said such measures would have prevented the puck that struck Cecil from entering the stands.

The Cecil family was not immediately available for comment.

In other business at the meeting, the league announced it was taking over operation of the financially troubled Buffalo Sabres, and it also approved a measure to speed up play, limiting the time between faceoffs to 20 seconds.

Safety netting has long been in place at European hockey arenas and some North American junior and college hockey rinks.

America West Arena in Phoenix previously was the only NHL venue with netting to protect spectators, because of an overhang in a balcony.

Fans had been warned about the dangers of flying pucks by public address announcements during games and by a disclaimer on each ticket that read: "Pucks flying into spectator areas can cause serious injury. Be alert."

Bettman said there wasn't much debate over installing the netting, and that he directed the initiative, which did not require governors' approval.

The ruling was received favorably by numerous NHL officials, particularly Blue Jackets president and general manager Doug MacLean.

"Obviously, the tragic death has affected us tremendously, and we wholeheartedly support the league's mandate to go with the netting," MacLean said. "We think it's a positive step."

MacLean added that his staff has kept in contact with the Cecil family.

"I welcome the initiative," Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford said. "I don't think it's going to be obstructive at all for the fans. ... And anything that's preventative is something that we probably should welcome."

Cecil's death, which came just days before her 14th birthday, drew considerable media attention to fans being struck by pucks.

In April, a lawsuit was filed against the league and the Chicago Blackhawks by a fan that required emergency brain surgery after being hit by a puck during a game at United Center in January.

In filing the lawsuit, attorney Tim Whiting accused the team, NHL and arena officials of "wantonly and willfully" disregarding the safety of spectators and should be exempt from a state law granting hockey stadiums immunity from injury liabilities.

The lawsuit also reportedly cited a study by two emergency room doctors showing that during 127 NHL games at the MCI Center in Washington, 122 fans were injured by pucks.

Nine days after Cecil was struck, a 42-year-old man was evaluated and released from a Chicago hospital after being struck by a puck.

The NHL had previously stated that it does not log fan injuries and that figures on the numbers hospitalized were maintained internally.

Bettman sounded hopeful that the Sabres could be sold soon. Current owner John Rigas agreed to the move and although he technically remains the Sabres' owner, the move helps clear the way for a potential sale.

"Based on discussions and an agreement we've made with the Rigases, the operational control of the franchise resides in the league office," Bettman said. "They've empowered us to operate the franchise."

Buffalo businessman Mark Hamister is trying to form a group of investors to purchase the Sabres and keep them in Buffalo. Bettman said the NHL will not pick up any of the team's debts, which amount to $157 million owed to Adelphia Communications.

In the new speedup rules, visiting teams will have five seconds to complete a line change during a stoppage and home teams eight seconds.

The linesman will then blow his whistle, after which he will drop the puck in five seconds whether or not both centers are lined up. This rule will not cover the final two minutes of a game.

Bettman anticipated the rule -- utilized by the American Hockey League last season -- will save 8-to-14 minutes of game time.

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