NHL Approves Safety Nets for Fans

Friday, June 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TORONTO (AP) _ The NHL put in place two safety nets at its Board of Governors meeting _ one for the protection of spectators, another for the financially troubled Buffalo Sabres.

The key decision Thursday concerns the installation of netting in league arenas next season. The action follows the March death of a 13-year-old girl who was struck in the head by a puck.

``This wasn't anything that required a great deal of debate,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the six-hour meeting. ``We're doing it because we think it's the right thing to do after what has happened.''

Brittanie Cecil was hit by a deflected slap shot at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. She died two days later after an injury to an artery in her neck caused internal bleeding. It was the first documented death of a fan struck by a puck at an NHL game.

The league also ordered to standardize the height of the glass around the rink to a minimum of 5 feet. Both measures are expected to be set by the start of next season.

Bettman also announced the NHL had taken over control of the Sabres, helping clear the way for the sale of the team. The arrangement, which could continue into next season, follows an agreement with John Rigas, who remains owner of the team in title only.

Referring to at least two prospective ownership groups, Bettman was confident the franchise will remain in Buffalo.

``We know that the Sabres are important to Buffalo and western New York,'' he said. ``And as we do in every other case, we want to make sure that our fans feel comfortable that we are trying to protect their interests as best we can.''

The NHL also approved a measure to speed play, limiting the time between faceoffs to 20 seconds, a measure expected to cut between eight and 14 minutes of game time.

The addition of safety nets represents the most visible change for fans.

The netting, averaging 18 feet in height, will hang from the ceiling, and rest on top of the glass. It will be hung across the end zones, stretching from the corners of the rink.

Bettman said such netting would have prevented the puck that struck Cecil from entering the stands.

The Cecil family was not immediately available for comment.

Safety netting has long been in place at European hockey arenas and some North American junior and college hockey rinks.

America West Arena in Phoenix previously was the only NHL venue with netting to protect spectators because of a balcony overhang.

The ruling was received favorably by numerous NHL officials, particularly Blue Jackets president and general manager Doug MacLean.

``The tragic death has affected us tremendously, and we wholeheartedly support the league's mandate to go with the netting,'' MacLean said.

While calling it a positive step, MacLean called it ``a small consolation'' in light of what happened.

Other NHL officials said they doubted the netting would hinder the view of spectators.

``When you first walk in, you notice it, but five minutes later, you don't see it anymore,'' Florida Panthers general manager Rick Dudley said.

Added Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford: ``I don't think it's going to be obstructive at all for the fans. ... And anything that's preventative is something that we probably should welcome.''