A Ballpark Tragedy Reminds Me of a Night to Forget in the NHL

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A Ballpark Tragedy Reminds Me of a Night to Forget in the NHL
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After hearing the story of the tragic death of 39-year-old Shannon Stone at Thursday’s Oakland Athletics-Texas Rangers game, your heart goes in your throat. You cannot imagine what it must feel like for the players and fans who witnessed someone’s unbelievably tragic death. 

And you certainly have no idea what his six-year-old son could possibly be thinking as his father fell, never to return. It is simply unimaginable.  

A few minutes later, a name popped into my head. Unfortunately, I had to search for this name because I did not remember it right away. 

Espen Knutsen.

No, he was not responsible for lending his name to a major cable sports network—he was an NHL hockey player. 

Espen Knutsen began his career as 10th-round draft pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1990.

Like most 10th-round draft picks, he did not find his way to the NHL right away. He spent a little time with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and then went back to Norway, finally getting a second chance in the NHL 10 years after he was drafted. 

Knutsen was signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000. He was 29 years old at the time.

Most players who practically start their NHL careers at that age are past their primes and most likely fit into the category of either never-was or has-been.

But in the 2000-01 NHL season, Knutsen flourished. He had 53 points (11 goals, 42 assists) in 66 games, which was good for second on the team. 

In his second season with the Blue Jackets, his numbers took a slight hit, but in February of that season he was named a replacement on the NHL World All-Star team for the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, thus becoming the first Norwegian player to play in an NHL All-Star Game. Knutsen made the most of his opportunity as he had a goal and an assist in the World team’s 8-5 victory over the North American squad. 

Just over a month later, on March 16, 2002, the Blue Jackets hosted the Calgary Flames at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.

During this hockey game, Knutsen took a shot that deflected off of Flames defenseman Derek Morris, sending the puck over the glass behind the goal, where it struck a 13-year-old girl in the head. 

That girl’s name was Brittanie Cecil.

She suffered a gash on her forehead and actually walked to a first-aid station. Brittanie was a soccer player and a sports fan who went to the game as an early 14th birthday gift from her father.

Her birthday was March 20th.

Sadly, she never made it to 14—Brittanie died two days later after suffering a blood clot in a torn vertebral artery.

For anyone who remembers sitting behind the goal at a hockey game before the mesh went up, this was not the safest place to be at an NHL arena. You had to always have your eyes peeled on the game if the play was in your zone. During practice and during the game there would always be a few pucks that would fly over the Plexiglas and into the seats. 

I remember times when the first-aid crews were called over and people were carried out of the arena due to injuries from flying pucks.

It was pretty amazing that someone had to die from a rock-hard puck traveling at speeds up to 100 miles per hour before something was done.   

At the start of the 2002-03 NHL season, every arena put protective mesh over the glass. We will never know how many lives Brittanie Cecil's death is responsible for, but the NHL made sure that this tragedy would be a rogue incident.  

Knutsen’s career was never the same.

In his first 131 games with the Blue Jackets, he had 95 points (22 goals, 63 assists). After the incident on March 16th, he would play in just 58 more games in the NHL and amass just 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists). Knutsen would have injuries that would hamper his 2002-03 NHL season and his 2003-04 NHL season, in the latter of which he would play his final 14 games in the league. 

Everyone knew that the tragedy was not Knutsen’s fault. There is practically no way a puck could be shot into the crowd aimed at someone—the puck is too small and the distance is too great.

The shot was a one-in-a-billion.

But, it is natural human emotion how one can feel for a loss that was never his fault and was certainly unintended. When you realize that the game you have played all your life can result in something so tragic it totally changes the way you go about your career.

Knutsen later told Sports Illustrated shortly after the incident: "I think about it all the time. It was a terrible accident, and I cannot get it off my mind.”

Knutsen is currently a player and a head coach in the Premier Hockey League in Norway. Just a few months ago in December 2010, he finally met with the family of Brittanie Cecil.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Cecil’s mother, Jody Naudascher said to him: "I don't hold you responsible; I never did, it was an accident, and you should never have blamed yourself for anything. I wanted to tell you all this back then."

The story of Josh Hamilton is one of personal redemption.

Like Knutsen, Hamilton’s professional career got off to a late start. Also like Knutsen, he was in the second half of his 20s and was able to begin his road to stardom in southern Ohio.

Hamilton played for the Cincinnati Reds in 2007, after which he was traded to the Texas Rangers with whom he is now a three-time All-Star and considered one of the best players in the game.

Unlike Knutsen, Hamilton was not a 10th-round selection. Hamilton was the first player taken in the 1999 MLB Amateur Draft.

Also unlike Knutsen, the reason for Hamilton’s late appearance in the big leagues was not due to his talent, but to a notoriously reckless lifestyle of partying and drugs. Hamilton found redemption both on and off the field, but now has experienced something he could have never expected because of what was a nice thing in tossing a foul ball into the stands.

Now, Josh Hamilton is better at baseball than Espen Knutsen was at hockey, and Hamilton’s career may not fade into oblivion as Knutsen’s did.

But they are both human, and just like most of us will never be professional baseball stars or NHL All-Stars, we most likely do not know what it is like to feel such remorse for a fatal accident that was never intended to happen.

Shannon Stone's death may have baseball take a closer look at how the railings are constructed and having nets or padding installed underneath some areas in case a similar situation takes place.

I am hopeful that a partial reunion of Stone family and Josh Hamilton will not take eight years to happen. 

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