People Staff
April 08, 2002 12:00 PM

On her last Friday, Brittanie Cecil bubbled over with anticipation. Freshman cheerleader tryouts were coming up, and “during first period all we were doing was working on our cheers,” says Tiffany Straszheim, 14, Brittanie’s eighth-grade classmate and one of her best friends at Twin Valley South Middle School in West Alexandria, Ohio, near Dayton. What’s more, Brittanie’s 14th birthday was just five days away, and she had been given tickets to a hockey game the next evening as a present. “She was all excited,” says Tiffany. “It was the first time we ever heard her talk about hockey.”

Tragically, her name is now forever linked to the sport. At a March 16 National Hockey League game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Calgary Flames, a puck shot off the stick of Blue Jacket center Espen Knutsen, flew into the stands at Columbus’s Nationwide Arena and hit Brittanie flush in the forehead. She managed to walk to a first aid station and, during the next several hours at the hospital, appeared to have avoided serious injury. But two days later the bright and pretty teenager died of complications from a rare arterial injury, the result of her head snapping back when she was hit by the puck. “Brittanie was a beautiful young girl and was able to touch everyone’s heart,” her uncle Paul Ulrich said at her funeral on March 22. “The love that she had on this earth hopefully will be carried forward.”

Brittanie is the first spectator killed by a puck in the NHL’s 85-year history, though at least three others have died after being hit by pucks during minor league games. “There are lethal weapons flying through the air and no protection for spectators,” says Nick Hildebrand, 49, an Altona, Man., labor-union business manager whose son Chad, 21 died after being hit by a puck during a 2000 game. Hildebrand, who has a lawsuit pending against the town that owns the hockey rink, believes protective nets should be strung in all arenas. “They call this a freak accident, but that’s when a meteorite falls out of the sky and hits you,” he says. “This is a preventable accident.” NHL officials investigating Brittanie’s death say they are considering additional safety measures beyond the Plexiglas shields—generally 8 to 10 ft. high—that are the only line of defense for spectators. “We have to do something that makes sense,” says Frank Brown, vice president of media relations for the NHL. “If something needs to be done, we will not hesitate to do it.”

An honors student and avid soccer player, Brittanie—whose parents divorced when she was an infant—received the tickets to the game as a gift from her father, David Cecil, 37. While she was at the game, her sister Kristina, 11, mother Jody, 33, and stepfather Rob, 39, were busy getting ready for her birthday.

Midway through the game’s second period, Knutsen’s slap shot deflected off the stick of a Flames defender and sailed into section 121. The hard rubber puck, frozen before games to minimize bouncing and traveling anywhere from 65 to 110 mph, struck Brittanie first “and then hit me in the temple,” says Larry Young, 61, a retired factory worker who suffered a minor cut. (The puck hit another young girl, who was also not seriously injured.) Brittanie “had a terrible gash on her head,” says Young. “But when my son asked how she was, she said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be okay.’ ”

Taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital 2½ miles away, Brittanie spoke with friends the next day and appeared to be all right. Her grandmother Rhonda, 51, called friends on Sunday and “said they were going to do surgery and stitch her up and then she would be fine,” says Brittanie’s pal Tiffany. In fact her vertebral artery had been badly damaged, causing blood clotting and brain swelling. By the time classmates made it to the hospital to visit her on Monday evening, Brittanie had died. “The hallways and two big visiting rooms were packed with family and friends,” says Tiffany’s mother, Tammy. “But there wasn’t one person who could talk.”

That week some classes were canceled at Twin Valley, where students spoke with counselors, pasted pictures and poems near Brittanie’s locker and circulated buttons with their friend’s smiling face on them. The Columbus Blue Jackets, too, sought ways to honor the teen, putting stickers with Brittanie’s initials on their helmets. “It was an accident, and I can’t blame myself,” Espen Knutsen, the married father of a 2-year-old boy, said last week. “Of course I’m thinking about her family and friends. It’s hard emotionally. It’s tough on everyone.” At a service on March 22, members of her family placed Brittanie’s soccer trophies and other mementos near her casket.

Friends and family could hardly believe that the happy teen who loved to shop, play practical jokes and roller-skate was gone. “She talked about going to college,” says Tiffany. “She wanted to be a cosmetologist or a pediatrician.” Instead, her parents asked that Brittanie’s organs be donated, “in the hope,” a Children’s Hospital official said, “that others will be blessed as much as they were by her life.”

•Alex Tresniowski

•Kelly Williams in West Alexandria, Liza Hamm in Columbus, Diane Herbst in New York City and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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