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Madden: Despite tragedy, leave NHL alone

Saturday, March 23, 2002

When 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died after being hit in the head by a hockey puck at an NHL game in Columbus, Ohio, it was a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.

In the days after Cecil's death Monday, much debate has ensued over how to make watching hockey games safer for spectators. What should be done?

If you have even a small degree of common sense, the answer is obvious: Absolutely nothing.

Pucks have been flying into the stands throughout the 85-year history of the NHL, many at frightening speeds. Cecil is the first NHL spectator to die after being hit by one.

What happened to Cecil was sad, tragic and terrible. But it was also a freak occurrence, something unlikely to happen again.

Hundreds of people have been struck by lightning while playing golf. But I've never heard anyone advocate a return to wooden clubs. Yet, after the death of one girl -- and I certainly don't mean to trivialize it, but it's not like the Blue Jackets' Espen Knutsen shot a hand grenade into the stands and took out an entire section -- the weepers and worriers have mobilized into a self-appointed safety patrol and made all sorts of nonsensical suggestions. Among them:

Make the Plexiglas taller. OK, but how tall is tall enough?

Hang netting between the top of the glass and the roof of the arena. Isn't the puck hard enough for spectators to follow without having to look through netting?

Make kids wear helmets. Hey, why not make every kid wear a suit of armor all the time? Can't be too careful, you know.

Other debates over safety at hockey games have developed. Some are surprised that more people haven't got hurt when the occasional sheet of Plexiglas breaks and falls onto spectators. I am not surprised, because I know that the Plexiglas used at hockey rinks is designed to shatter and crumble in non-dangerous fashion, not break into shards and pierce eyes, hearts, brains, etc.

Once in a very great while an intact sheet of Plexiglas will dislodge and conk somebody on the head. It happened to Janet Jones-Gretzky, in fact, and she's OK, and still a hot number to boot.

NHL arenas have hardly morphed into dens of dangers. Next time you're at an NHL game, look around at the kids in attendance. Some will, unfortunately, die before their time.

But they won't die from getting hit in the head with vulcanized rubber. Maybe they'll get run over by a drunken driver. Or die of cancer because they took up smoking. Or succumb to AIDS after having unprotected sex. Or expire because of abusing drugs. Deaths like that happen every day, not every 85 years.

Let's address the problems that are worth addressing. Let's not worry too much about something that is obviously a fluke.

If you want realistic advice regarding safety at hockey games, heed these words: Choose your seat carefully and pay attention to the game. If you're going with a young child, or if you plan to spend much of the game with a cell phone jammed in your ear, or if you just don't react very quickly, don't sit in the first few rows above the Plexiglas. Stay out of the line of fire.

I'm not saying that Cecil wasn't paying attention, or that she could have dodged the puck even if she were. I am saying that I see a lot of people at hockey games for whom watching the game seems only a minor concern. Pay attention. And if you don't want to pay attention, why are you there?

Cecil's family members and friends are obviously the people most traumatized by what happened. But my heart goes out to Knutsen, too. Knutsen took the shot that resulted in Cecil's death, but there was obviously no malice aforethought, no intent to put the puck in the stands. Now Knutsen has to live with what happened every day for the rest of his life. That will be a heavy burden.

The safety patrol wants to make major-league baseball less dangerous, too. But in 125 years of big-league baseball, just five spectators have been killed by batted or thrown balls. That's a very small number. Baseball plays a lot more games than hockey, and in front of a lot more people, too. Just to be safe, though, maybe baseball could use Nerf balls. Do they make Nerf pucks?

Life itself is a dangerous proposition. There is risk inherent in almost everything we do. People sometimes rally behind causes like the death of Brittanie Cecil for their own sake, not the cause's sake. They do it to feel noble, to feel like they're contributing, and they often fool themselves in addition to everybody else.

I'm sure a lawsuit will result from this. One always does, and you certainly can't blame the Cecil family for exploring their options.

But hockey in general and the NHL in particular should be left alone on this one. What happened couldn't have been prevented. It was nobody's fault. Sometimes people just die.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250.)

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