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Playing It Safe

In response to last season's death of a spectator, NHL mandates the use of protective netting


Spectators attending NHL exhibition games tonight at Staples Center and Friday night at the Arrowhead Pond will get their first look at new protective netting behind the goals--a sad reminder of one of the league's darkest hours.

The black nylon mesh that will hang like a curtain above the glass, shielding fans from pucks flying into the stands, is the tragic legacy of a 13-year-old girl who was struck in the head by an errant puck last March while attending a game at Columbus, Ohio, and died two days later.

The death of Brittanie Nichole Cecil, the first fan fatality in the 85-year history of the NHL, sparked discussions about the safety measures taken to protect spectators at sporting events.

In June, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman responded to the tragedy by mandating the installation of protective netting at all league arenas, saying that if such protection had been in place last season it would have prevented the puck that struck Cecil from sailing into the stands at Nationwide Arena.

Though he told reporters in Toronto that an independent study had concluded that NHL buildings were safe for fans, Bettman said he nevertheless felt compelled to act in the wake of such a horrific accident. He also mandated that the protective glass on the sides of NHL rinks be raised to at least five feet in height.

"The accident in Columbus was tragic," he said. "And even though Brittanie Cecil was the first fatality in the 85-year history of the league, and probably 800 million fans have attended our games, we still wanted the look of doing the right thing.

"So we concluded on the basis of the report that there were measures we could take that would reduce the incidence of pucks entering the stands without it interfering with the game, or the fans' enjoyment of the game."

The netting, which will keep the six-ounce frozen rubber pucks out of the seats behind the nets and in the corners, will extend across each end of the rink from points about 10 feet farther out toward center ice from where the red goal lines meet the boards. The NHL recommended that it be black after testing for impact on spectators and television cameras, concluding that black absorbed the light better than white and was less of a distraction.

At Staples Center, where the Kings play the San Jose Sharks tonight, the netting will rise 22 feet above the glass and can be raised and lowered by a winch. Cost to the Kings: about $90,000-$100,000.

At the Pond, where the Mighty Ducks play the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, the netting will rise some 60 feet above the glass, topping out at about the same height as the last row in the upper deck. Cost to the Ducks, including a chain-motor system to raise and lower the netting: about $120,000.

The Ducks experimented with suspending the net lower but determined that, when they hung it any lower, the aluminum rod used to keep it in place was a significant barrier to some views, either of the ice or the scoreboard.

Both teams anticipate complaints from fans and say they will try to accommodate spectators who want to relocate to other parts of the building. At each of the league's arenas, depending on where they're seated, some fans will view part of the ice through netting and other parts unobstructed.

"It will take a couple of games, I think, to get people used to it because it's different than what they've been used to," King President Tim Leiweke said. "But I think they'll be fine."

Protective netting is used in all major European rinks and in Canadian junior leagues, as well as some college arenas in the United States.

In the NHL, however, only the Phoenix Coyotes had used it--to protect fans in obstructed-view upper-level seats that hang over the ice at the north end of America West Arena. In 1993, the Calgary Flames installed netting but removed it after one game because of an overwhelmingly negative reaction from fans.

Still, a year before the tragedy in Columbus, NHL general managers had discussed protective netting. They were concerned after a $3-million settlement was reached by the Kings, Sharks and Shark player Joe Murphy with a fan who was struck in the head when Murphy angrily fired a puck into the stands while play was stopped during a 1999 game at the Forum.

The discussions, however, never went beyond the preliminary stage, Leiweke said, and the issue was never put to a vote.

Cecil's death changed the NHL's view. Attending her first hockey game, she was watching the Columbus Blue Jackets play the Flames on March 16 when a slap shot by Blue Jacket center Espen Knutsen was deflected into the stands by Calgary defenseman Derek Morris with 12:18 to play in the second period.

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