Death of Brittanie Cecil: 10 years later

In this screen grab, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil holds her hands to her head as she is treated at...

In this screen grab, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil holds her hands to her head as she is treated at her seat.

STEVE MACFARLANE, Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:05 PM ET

The deflected shot winds up nowhere near the net, but its impact is quickly felt around the league.

It strikes a young girl in the crowd, days before her 14th birthday, changing the lives of her family forever.

The same can be said for the NHL, which has to deal with the death of a fan for the first time in its 85-year history.

Neither the family, nor the league, wants to ever see something like that happen again.

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It’s been 10 years since Columbus Blue Jackets centre Espen Knutsen fired a slapshot — tipped almost immediately by Calgary Flames defenceman Derek Morris — that sailed more than 100 feet over the glass and hit the head of 13-year-old fan Brittanie Cecil during a game at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus on March 16, 2002.

Nobody knew how serious the injury was at the time.

Although the bloody cut on her head was the only visible wound and she was able to walk to a first-aid station and then to an ambulance, Brittanie had a seizure when she arrived at the hospital.

Even then, she was able to move around and function normally the next day after being admitted as a precaution.

Nobody realized that as her head snapped back on contact with the puck, a vertebral artery was torn. It wasn’t noticeable in the CAT scan she received, and the resulting clot became bigger as time went on, and the blocked blood flow to the brain continued to accumulate in her head.

Two days after the accident, Brittanie lost consciousness. By the time doctors discovered the blocked arteries — Franklin County coroner Brad Lewis told Sports Illustrated he believed the swelling eventually compressed the other three main arteries that feed blood to the brain as well — it was too late to help the bubbly, brown-eyed, blond-haired, sport-loving cheerleader who was at her first NHL game thanks to tickets from her dad as an early birthday present.

She died that evening.

Brittanie, who called West Alexandria, Ohio, home, would have turned 14 two days later.

“She was 13. She was the same age as my daughter was at the time,” former Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean says somberly as he makes the drive down to Buffalo to watch his college senior son play a hockey game at Niagara University.

“Just a horrendous tragedy when you think that a little girl is at a game, loving hockey and loving the game and then had that happen.

“It’s just so tragic.”

MacLean is one of many who witnessed the incident and assumed it was just like many of the hundreds of thousands of errant puck accidents that are commonplace in NHL rinks around the league.

None had ever gone so wrong.

“It was just such a strange thing because of how it happened. I saw her get hit from my box.” MacLean recalls. “Then I saw her walk out and I never really thought a thing of it.”

Few did. The players saw the puck go over the glass. Blue Jackets forward Jody Shelley remembers the gasp from the crowd, a towel being passed up from person to person and the reaction when the young girl got up and walked out.

“We all cheered,” says Shelley, who now plays for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Now a member of the Flames front office, former player Craig Conroy was on the ice during the play, watching it unfold in front of him.

“I remember the play just like it was yesterday,” Conroy says. “I was coming down the ice, backchecking, and I was just behind. I remember it deflected off Mo’s stick.

“Like a million other times, it just went in the air, over the glass … You always hope it didn’t hit anybody. It was pretty high. We heard that it hit a little girl. But we thought everything was OK.”

As everyone knows now, it was anything but.

“Sunday night at 5 o’clock, I get a call from our PR guy and he said, ‘You know that little girl that got hit with the puck? Well, she’s not gonna make it,’ ” says MacLean, recalling words eluding him at the time.

“Oh my God,” was his only response. Disbelief his most tangible memory.

Those sentiments were shared by the hockey community as a whole.

Ken King was in his first year as president of the Flames and was taking in the action at Nationwide Arena on that terrible evening.

Long gone by the time Brittanie took a turn for the worse, King still remembers the feelings that came over him when the team was made aware of the outcome.

“Great sadness and great concern for the family,” King says. “And a real appreciation for those uncontrollable events that can happen anywhere, at any time, and give you pause to stop and think about life on a far greater scale than just what might be happening on the ice.

“No one could ever have dreamt of such a thing happening that way. We were devastated by it.”

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By late June, three months after the accident, the league mandates safety netting to be installed in every NHL building, shielding the seats behind the nets and in the corners from errant pucks.

It’s just a little too late for Brittanie Cecil.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNMacfarlane


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