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Ten years after death of Brittanie Cecil, recalling backlash over NHL safety netting

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SI.com

Friday, March 16, marks the 10-year anniversary of Brittanie Cecil being struck by a puck in the stands. As the 13-year-old fan was attending a Columbus Blue Jackets home game, Espen Knutsen fired a slap shot, Calgary Flames defenseman Derek Morris deflected it and the puck struck her in the head, snapping it back.

She died two days later.

Mike Wagner of the Columbus Dispatch wrote the definitive piece on Cecil, her family and Knutsen last summer. It's a harrowing, emotional read that gives you both a sense of the family's grief and the burden Knutsen carried for the rest of his life. (See also: Sports Illustrated's coverage back in 2002.)

For the NHL, the first reported fan death of this kind led to the installation of safety netting in its arenas. From an AP report from June 2002, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at the Board of Governors meetings:

Bettman said there hasn't been a day since the accident that he hasn't thought of her. "Our buildings are safe, but when we've had a tragedy like we had, it's time to reevaluate," Bettman said. "I believe at the end of this process, we'll do the right thing. ... We're doing a thorough analysis of what must be done to improve safety."

A few weeks later, it was official:

"In response to the Brittanie Cecil tragedy, the National Hockey League has spent the past several months in comprehensive study of the arena and spectator environment at our games," Bettman said. "While the analysis confirmed that our arenas are safe, the determination was made to take additional measures that would reduce the incidence of pucks entering the stands."

… Some Blackhawks season ticket-holders said during the season that they would oppose having netting installed because it would interfere with their view of the game.

"After three minutes people won't know it's there," Bettman said.

With a decade of hindsight, it's fascinating to look back at the backlash against it.

I'll raise my hand here and cop to having been part of the resistance.

I grew up in arenas where that pregame warning — "watch for flying pucks into the stands!" — wasn't just a suggestion but an order. It was downright dangerous to sit in the end zones, but that was the point, in a macabre way: The danger made you feel closer to the action. The potential for injury added to the unpredictability of the in-arena experience. Catching a speeding puck made those foul ball scoopers at baseball games seem like wussies.

(And if watching a puck fly by your face while you eat a pretzel wasn't your bag, you could just sit upstairs.)

A decade after Cecil's death, all of the digital ink I spilled railing against the "mosquito netting" at hockey games probably reads like someone lamenting that you can't smoke on Pan-Am flights anymore — the very concept of unprotected spectators seems arcane, and what the [expletive] is a Pan-Am?

But I wasn't alone in the backlash to the netting. Fans were torn on it. From a Central Michigan Life editorial from 2002:

If spectators paid attention to the game, safety wouldn't be a concern.

At the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., 122 fans were injured in 127 games, most of them weren't serious, according to a report by two emergency room doctors. Meaning spectators were trying to be heroes by catching the puck and cutting their hand or something minor.

Don't try to be heroes when the puck is traveling at 100 miles per hour; just duck.

The nets are good news to some people, such as the architects that build new arenas and stadiums. Now, with the nets, spectators will be able to see ice rinks where there are only 15-20 rows of seats behind the end zones and the rest near center ice. Taller and wider stadiums will be built as soon as the word gets out that no one can see through the nets.

The sad thing is, the NHL puts up nets because a girl died of an accident.

Steve MacFarlane of the Winnipeg Sun looked back at the tragedy, and spoke to then-Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean:

MacLean recalls some of the notes he received from upset fans who somehow couldn't grasp the seriousness of what had happened. "It was shocking to me. When we put the nets up in Columbus, I had some unbelievably nasty letters from season ticket-holders asking me how I could do that to their sight-lines," MacLean said. "I wrote back to them and said I'm sorry, I feel bad, I'll do whatever I can to accommodate you — but I can't even discuss this right now with what's transpired here. People were vicious about it."

… "It just shocks me that we used to sit behind those nets, sit in the endzone (above the glass) and not think a thing of it," MacLean said. "It's bizarre when I think about it now, that we actually did that with the way the pucks fly out of there. How many people could have been killed in warmup? As sad as it is and as terrible as it is, when (Brittanie's dad) said that to me, it hit home."

Again, the netting has become such an assumed part of the fan experience that the backlash 10 years ago seems Neanderthalic — and fairly cold-hearted — today. The league argued this change was essential for safety. The purists bristled at the end of a tradition. Debates raged … and then a decade later, yesterday's hot-button debate is today's societal norm.

R.I.P., Brittanie Cecil. Gone but not forgotten.

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