Hockey Death Raises Questions About Safety, Liability

By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The death of a 13-year-old girl struck by a hockey puck at a National Hockey League game has raised questions about how safe fans are and what responsibilities a team or arena bear to protect spectators.

Brittanie Cecil, who would have turned 14 on Wednesday, died two days after being hit on the forehead by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game Saturday night at Nationwide Arena. She became the first fan ever killed at an NHL game.

The game was an early birthday present from Brittanie's father, friends said.

"It's family fun -- and the girl didn't see her 14th birthday," said Jim Elliott, a Michigan attorney who has represented fans injured at games. "It can be fun and it should be fun, but it's big business."

A coroner determined Wednesday that Cecil, a Dayton-area eighth-grader, died as a result of damage to an artery that runs from the spine into the back of the brain.

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

He said clotting in the artery led to swelling of the brain.

"Initially the damage was not significant enough to cause her any problems," Lewis said. "But over the ensuing 48 hours the damage progressed."

High break-resistant glass sheets surround all but the bench areas at Nationwide Arena. But a slap shot by the Blue Jackets' Espen Knutsen caromed off Calgary defenseman Derek Morris' stick and rocketed into the stands.

A disclaimer is printed on the back of each ticket that warns "pucks flying into spectator areas can cause serious injury. Be alert ..."

Being alert can provide only so much safety, however. A puck is made of 6 ounces of frozen, vulcanized rubber. NHL players in the annual skills competition on all-star weekend routinely slam slap shots at more than 100 mph.

U.S. Air Arena in Phoenix is the only NHL venue with netting that protects spectators. The netting is necessary because of an overhang in a balcony, but no other part of the seating is protected.

The Blue Jackets' practice facility has netting -- to protect the windows on one side.

"I'm fine with netting as long as it doesn't impede my vision," said Shawn Law, a Blue Jackets season ticket-holder. "From my seat I can see a woman the next section over who has an infant no more than a year old. She's seated above the glass and she's looking around, not paying attention. People are not watching the game all the time. They can't."

NHL and Blue Jackets officials did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Although no previous spectator had been killed in the NHL's 84 years, stitches and bruises are a common occurrence for fans. Several pucks a game go flying into the crowd.

The one that struck Brittanie hit two other people, drawing blood when it hit Larry Young, 61, in the head -- after it hit the teen-ager.

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.

Hildebrand, 21, went home and was fine, but then collapsed and fell into a coma. After a week, he was taken off life support and died.

His father, Nick Hildebrand, does not believe it was just bad fortune that his son was in the path of the errant shot.

"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 disclaimer on the back of the ticket doesn't absolve the teams or the venue when fans are injured.

"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. They don't say, 'Hey, it's $50, but all of these rules apply' and then you can make the decision if you want to enter the contract (buy a ticket) from the team."

In recent years, there have been million-dollar settlements paid by teams to injured fans.

Elliott, the sports attorney, said it won't be long before teams realize that it's cheaper to put up nets and 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."

He said far more fans are injured than people know, although sports teams are well aware of the risks.

"Everyone there saw this girl get hit with a puck, stand up and walk out," he said. "Had she not died, no one would have ever known how serious this injury was or how common the problem is."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)