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We're All Human




Today’s edition of Annals of the Ice is different. Everything in hockey history is not positive. I think we do ourselves, the sport, and those who participate in it no favors if we ignore the sadder moments. The events I write about in this post may be the saddest events in the history of the NHL, but I hope it will make us all think about the human side of the game we love so much.


It seemed like a routine play. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Espen Knutsen fired a shot that deflected off of the stick of Calgary Flames defenseman Derek Morris. The puck sailed into the stands, a new puck was brought in, and after the faceoff, the game continued. It had happened countless time before, and the game always continued.


It was March 16, 2002. Brittanie Cecil was four days away from her 14th birthday. Brittanie was a big sports fan, and her father bought the tickets as a birthday present. By all accounts, Brittanie was extremely excited about the game. Her parents were divorced, and she lived with her mother and stepfather. The family was moving on the day of the game, and her mother was sick from food poisoning, but her stepfather decided to let her go to the game anyway. Despite the busyness of the household and her younger sister Kristina Sergent’s begging her to stay home, Brittanie went to the game with her stepmother.


The fateful moment came about halfway through the second period. The Blue Jackets led the game 1-0 when Knutsen fired the shot. Unable to reach Knutsen in time to make a play against his body, Morris used his stick to deflect the puck. Once over the glass, the puck struck Brittanie in the head before deflecting off of another fan. With the players, coaches, and officials unaware that anything serious had happened, the game continued.


Those at ice level were not the only ones of the severity of Brittanie’s injuries. After realizing she was bleeding from where the puck had hit her, Brittanie turned to her stepmother. Other than the gash above her nose she seemed fine. She walked to a first aid station located inside Nationwide Arena under her own power. The only suggestion to those around that anything was amiss was the jacket that she held against her forehead to control the bleeding. The truth was far different. Brittanie had more than a gash. The impact of the puck when it struck her forehead had fractured her skull and torn a vertebral artery.


Britannie was taken to the hospital for examination and stitches. Later that night, she suffered a seizure, but by the time her family arrived at the hospital, she seemed to be her normal self. When her grandfather walked in, she held up the puck that had hit her and said smiling, “I got a souvenir.” By the next day, she seemed to be well on her way to recovery, but a CT scan failed to find the tear in her vertebral artery. On March 18, 2002, two days after the hockey game she attended, and two days before turning 14, Brittanie Cecil died from bleeding on her brain. She developed a high fever and slipped into a coma from which she would never awaken.


The next morning, Espen Knutsen walked into the locker room at Nationwide Arena expecting to begin preparation for that night’s game against the Minnesota Wild. He was unprepared for the mood that he found, much less the news he received, when he entered. Teammate Ray Whitney took him aside and told Knutsen about Brittanie’s death. Knutsen immediately broke into tears. Kevin Dineen, who occupied the locker next to Knutsen’s put his arm around Knutsen, trying to console him and reminded him that it was an accident. There was no consoling Knutsen. Even though he knew it was an accident, he could not help but feel responsible. Blue Jackets Coach Dave King met privately with Knutsen later in the day, but fared no better in his attempts to comfort him.


Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean attended Cecil’s funeral and spoke on behalf of the team. Brittanie’s mother, Jody, hoped Knutsen would attend the funeral so that she could tell him that she did not hold him responsible, but only MacLean attended. He made the decision to attend the funeral instead of his players to shield them from the inevitable media circus.


Brittanie’s family, however, could not escape said circus. They were hounded by media at the funeral, with one media member going so far as to fake offering condolences to Brittanie’s stepfather in an effort to get an interview. The family was unable to live in their new house for a week following the funeral because of the constant attempts by the media to contact them. Even after the immediate aftermath of Brittanie’s death passed, complete relief from the pressure of the media did not subside. For months and years after Brittanie’s death, the requests continued.


Following Brittanie’s death, MacLean saw to it that nets were installed at the ends of the ice in Nationwide Arena. At first, the nets met with angry reactions from fans, but MacLean was insistent that they remain. Brittanie Cecil was the first (and to date only) fan to receive fatal injuries at an NHL game, and MacLean had no intention of seeing the number increase on his watch. Within a few months, every other NHL arena would follow suit, and the NHL would mandate such nets. As a tribute to Brittanie, the Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings observed a moment of silence before their game the following Thursday, and the Blue Jackets wore the initials “BNC” on their helmets for the rest of the season in her honor.


Knutsen’s career quickly went off track after the incident, and he never was able to return to form after the incident. For years, he struggled with feelings of guilt and responsibility for what happened. The 2003-04 season was his final season playing in North America, after which he returned to Norway. It was years before he returned to the United States or met with Brittanie’s family, but the day that Brittanie’s mother long dreamed about finally took place nearly nine years later. In December of 2010, Britannie’s mother, her grandparents, her sister, and her sister’s stepsister had a private meeting with Knutsen in Nationwide Arena. Brittanie’s family told Knutsen about her, and her mother was finally able to tell him that she did not blame him and never had. She told Knutsen about how her family was hounded by the media following her daughter’s death. Knutsen shared his feelings about the incident and what it was like to be vilified after the incident. After the meeting, Brittanie’s mother visited the seat where her daughter was sitting during the incident.


Such a meeting could never erase the pain that anyone involved felt following the tragedy, but one can hope that it provided some degree of closure for Brittanie’s family and for Knutsen. It is easy to forget while watching a hockey game that all involved are just as human as we are. The players on the ice have the same emotions as we do, and they all fight their own battles just like we do. The same can be said for everyone of the thousands of fans at each and every game. Espen Knutsen, Brittanie Cecil, and her family are no different.

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What a great article Scott.  I remember when the incident frst occurred.  What a tragic story.  Often one forgets what the players go through when an incident such as this occurs. Having children of my own, I can't even begin to fathom how I would react had this happned to my family.


What a tragic story for both the family and player.  Makes you sit back and realize how precious life really is.


Thank you for this very touching story.

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Outstanding article!  I had to sit and just think about it, let it sink in, before trying to figure how to respond.  I still don't know how.  Life is precious, and beautiful.

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The one hockey game I've had the privilege of attending was just a few months after this in Jackson when the Bandits played in the ECHL. It was with the church youth group, and I remember a lot of the parents being scared to death after hearing about this and our church youth director having to try to ease their minds. I don't think I would have forgotten this anyway, but that makes me remember it even more vividly.


I always had a soft spot for Knutsen after this happened. He seems to be a classy guy, and I hate to see how he was eaten by guilt over something that he wasn't really responsible for. I couldn't put everything I found into the article, but if I were to add one more thing, it would be what happened when Knutsen's son first learned about the incident at age eight. After reading about it online, he asked his dad, "Did you really take a shot that killed a girl?" He was just being an eight-year-old, and he expressed sympathy for his dad and Britannie, but that still had to sting.


I can't even begin to imagine, nor would I want to, what Brittanie's family went through. To have it happen at any time is tragic, but so close to her birthday when the game was a birthday present? I'm at a loss for words for that.


To be perfectly honest with you all, this was hard to write. A lot of the details of this tore at my heart. But I still feel like these stories need to be told. I don't really know how to fully express my thoughts and emotions about it either.

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