On this day in 2002, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil dies, two days after being struck in the head by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets ice hockey game. Cecil’s death forced the National Hockey League to take new precautions regarding fan safety.
Cecil was struck by a puck that had ricocheted into the stands off the stick of a defenseman and then off of another spectator. She later died from swelling in her brain, caused by a damaged artery she suffered when her head was hit and snapped backward. Cecil was certainly not the first spectator to be struck by a puck, and because of that danger, all NHL and minor league hockey teams place warnings on tickets, signs and the scoreboard reminding fans to stay alert to flying pucks. Still, three other spectator deaths have been reported due to injuries sustained from a puck during a game. All three of these previous injuries occurred at minor league games, however, where the vertical barrier between fans and the ice is shorter than at NHL arenas. In the aftermath of Cecil’s death, the NHL forced all teams to install behind the goals 18-foot mesh nets, designed to catch pucks that fly above the standard eight-foot glass barrier, beginning with the 2002-03 season. Brittanie Cecil’s parents received a $1.2 million settlement from the NHL after the incident.
Hockey is not the only sport where fans have to be aware of play on the field to avoid injury. Baseball fans have to keep an eye out for balls and bats that make their way into the stands, as balls batted into the stand are known to have caused injuries, though never death. Auto racing has seen a number of spectator deaths from cars and car parts crashing into the stands. In 1998, three spectators were killed at Michigan International Speedway when a tire from Adrian Fernandez’s race car flew into the stands. A fan was killed in a similar incident at the Indianapolis 500 in 1987.
In Europe, overcrowding, rioting, stampedes and incidents with police have resulted in hundreds of deaths at soccer games. In 1985, misbehavior by fans of the Liverpool football club in a match against Juventus at Heysel Stadium in Brussels led to the banishment of English football teams from competing on the European continent until 1990. In 2007, Italian fan riots led the Italian League to play games without spectators while antiquated stadiums were updated with modern safety features such as metal detectors.