Our hockey rinks are among the most dangerous entertainment venues in Canada. We never think twice about pucks flying off the ice surface going upwards of 100 miles an hour. Yet those six ounces of frozen vulcanized rubber are deadly.
I became immersed in spectator safety when I recently represented Louitta Fisher, who received a severe brain injury when an errant puck struck her in her left temple in the Debert hockey rink over a decade ago. She can no longer walk or speak and she is locked in her body forever.
Prior to Louitta’s case, it was an absolute rarity for hockey arenas to have spectator netting along the sides of the rink. Now about 60 per cent of rinks in Nova Scotia have spectator netting, costing literally nothing compared to the safety it provides for those in the stands who watch hockey happily, unmindful of the tragedy that could be seconds away.
Despite Louitta’s story, amazingly there are still many irresponsible ice rink operators in this province who refuse to install spectator netting, although the technology has very much improved, offering see-through monofilament netting that allows free and clear viewing of hockey games. The inaction to protect spectators defies logic and makes rink operators very vulnerable to lawsuits from any injured spectator when everyone in the hockey business in Nova Scotia knows about Louitta’s tragic case.
Also, you would have to live in a cave not to know about the tragic death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil at a 2002 NHL game between Edmonton and Columbus, where she was killed from a flying puck while out for some family fun. She was seated 15 rows back.
Research has been done on how dangerous various sports are to athletes, and hockey is far and away the most dangerous of all sports with a multiplicity of eye injuries, broken bones, concussions — you name it. It is no surprise, given the speed and nature of the sport.
One thing I learned from my friend Garth Vaughan, who wrote the book The Puck Stops Here! is that in relative terms, hockey is a "young game" and it is still developing. Only 45 years ago, when I played minor hockey in Kentville, helmets were not mandatory. Helmets in the NHL only became the rule in 1979.
The rink in Kentville had no side glass whatsoever back then, and they had wire netting in the end zones; but of course, they did not have curved sticks and ultra-light handles like they do today to make launching shots faster and harder than ever before. Hockey is a much more dangerous game than ever and physical contact against bigger and stronger players can be deadly.
Spectators have also died, lost their eyes and suffered brain injuries from flying pucks. Sadly, the vast majority of people who are injured by flying pucks in rinks are children and women, who may be less familiar with the dangers of the game.
What is totally amazing is that there is no law or national building code that requires hockey rinks to have spectator netting. There are no binding recommendations by any national hockey association or rink association making spectator netting mandatory. The Canadian Standards Association through the Canada Safety Council has set certain guidelines, but they are not enforceable. This failure by hockey associations and rink operators to act decisively is irresponsible.
In Europe, many of the rinks have had spectator netting since the introduction of hockey in the last 50 years, yet we only started talking about it in this province in 2006, and then only after Louitta Fisher was severely injured. It’s high time for spectator netting to be universal in all community rinks, and the government should legislate it. After all, hockey is just a game which is supposed to be fun, not dangerous.
Gordon F. Proudfoot, Q.C.