As the player who shot the puck that was tipped into the crowd during a Columbus Blue Jackets game March 16, 2002 — the whiplash ultimately bringing an end to the life of the 13-year-old girl — the talented Norwegian will forever be tied to the first fan death in 85 years of NHL hockey.
Considering it was a freak accident, with his slapper deflecting off Calgary Flames defenceman Derek Morris’ stick and into the crowd where the unsuspecting Brittanie was hit in the forehead, he could have sympathized with the family yet realize it was an accident.
But it simply wasn’t that easy for the kind-hearted 30-year-old to forget.
“It really shook me, my teammates and everyone around the team more than people could ever know,” Knutsen told the Dispatch in December later that year as he came face to face with Cecil’s family for the first time nearly nine years after the accident took her life.
“I can’t imagine what it was like for you, for your family,” Knutsen said to Cecil’s mother, Jody Naudascher. “It was a terrible accident that I couldn’t believe. I saw her walk out of the arena and couldn’t believe it when I heard (she died).”
Jody Shelley was a single, young player with the Blue Jackets at the time. Now a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, his thoughts quickly trail off on the 10th anniversary of the incident, and he thinks back.
“It was one of those things that kind of shakes you up. Espen was ... I don’t know,” said Shelley, who is uncomfortable talking openly of what he heard was going on behind the scenes.
But the stories have been told — of Knutsen sobbing behind closed doors after teammate Ray Whitney pulled him aside and informed him Cecil had died less than 24 hours after walking out of the building; of it being the end of his career in North America as he played out his remaining days (only 45 NHL games in the following two seasons before heading back to Europe) in a state of grief and distraction.
“I thought he was joking. He had to be joking,” Knutsen said of Whitney’s news. “I didn’t believe it until I saw his face. I remember just kind of going blank and numb.”
The numbness lingered.
“For a couple of weeks, he was not Espen Knutsen. He really was in a funk, really depressed I think would be a good word,” said former coach Dave King, who now works with the Phoenix Coyotes.
“It was really hard on Espen. I don’t know if he would admit it, but I think that may have taken a little edge off his game that may have made the difference for him staying over here longer and playing.
“When the incident happened, there was a spark that he had before. It just seems it went out. Even though it was accidental, I think he really internalized that to the point his desire to play the game just seemed to drop.”
North of the border, Morris lived with similar feelings.
Still active in the NHL with the Phoenix Coyotes, Morris has been dealing recently with a family illness.
“You try to say, ‘It happens all the time,’ but you can’t,” Morris told Sports Illustrated in the weeks after the accident. “I don’t know how many times pucks get deflected over the glass, but it doesn’t make it any better. You can always say, ‘It’s not my fault,’ but you always feel like it is, a little.”
Like the Jackets, the Flames were told about the death once management was informed.
“I just remember everyone in shock,” remembered Craig Conroy, a co-captain of the team at the time. “I think we all felt just as bad (as Morris). We didn’t talk about it. That’s a tough thing to talk about. It was just kind of more silent. It’s probably one of the greatest tragedies in all of sports to have that happen to a fan. Things happen to players or whatever — that’s different.
“Mo and I never talked about it. Just a very hard thing for any of us to talk about.”
In Knutsen’s case, talking didn’t seem to help.
“No matter what you said to him, it didn’t seem to help very much,” King said. “So many people talked to him. So many people tried to help him through it. He’s just such a good person — he took it so personally, I don’t think he ever regained his joie de vive he always had. It was a bad feeling because you just couldn’t help him.”
Forgiveness was forthcoming, however. It just took a little time.
Naudascher wasn’t the first person to tell Knutsen the accident wasn’t his fault. But it was from the most meaningful source.
“I don’t hold you responsible — I never did,” Naudascher told him during that private meeting at Nationwide Arena. “It was an accident, and you should never have blamed yourself for anything. I wanted to tell you all this back then.”
Although King hasn’t spoken to Knutsen since Knutsen headed back to Europe, a recent trip overseas himself had him thinking about the incident again.
“Espen’s back in coaching right now,” King said. “That’s good news. I was over in Sweden a few weeks ago and heard he was back coaching. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign. That’s a really good sign.’ ”
On Twitter: @SUNMacfarlane