- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

Perhaps never before has a mesh net caused so much distress.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in June mandated the installation of new safety nets above the end line glass in all arenas and hoped to be able to move on from tragedy. Just three months earlier, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil of Ohio became the first NHL fan fatality in 85 years after she was struck by a stray puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. Bettman was adamant about preventing a repeat occurrence.
Fast-forward to the onset of the 2002-03 season, and no one disputes that going to an NHL game is now safer. But the obstruction of views caused by the nets for TV cameras and ticket holders has many wondering if the new measure is overkill.
Nearly every team in the league has fielded at least dozens of complaints from ticket holders, most of whom are paying $60 to $100 per game for the prime lower-level seats. TV rights holders are wrestling with how to show vertical angles of the ice without pointing their cameras through the nets. And upper-level ticket holders, facing a remote chance at best of having a puck reach them, are wondering why they're also watching games through the mesh nets.
The nets have even caused hiccups in preseason play. Several shots have reached the nets and bounced back into play, eluding the eyes of referees who should have whistled play dead.
"The nets give me a headache big time," said Ernest Bechet of Largo, who attended a Washington Capitals preseason game. "I understand what they're trying to do, but what's the difference between this and baseball? Many more foul balls go into the crowd in baseball than pucks here. I know what I'm in for when I come. It's particularly hard trying to watch through nets to the far end of the ice."
Bettman also used baseball to back up his summertime order, citing that seats behind home plate are both the most expensive and are located behind a protective screen. The nets also are in place in most European hockey arenas and hark back to the NHL's early days, when fans were protected by chain link fences instead of Plexiglas.
"This netting, I believe, is something you will adjust to," Bettman said. "If you are a fan and you sit there fixated on the fact that you don't like the netting and you stare at the netting, it will be harder to adjust. If you sit back and you relax and watch the game, within a minute you won't even know it's there."
Each team received a different mandate on the required height of its nets, depending on the configuration and seating layout of its building. The Caps were fortunate in this regard, receiving an order for just 15 feet above the top of the glass, far below the 80 to 100 feet seen at many arenas. The nets at MCI Center, as a result, do not dramatically affect any views from the fourth level.
But several dozen ticket holders have registered complaints to team executives and, in most cases, have been moved to new seat locations.
"We respect and will abide by the commissioner's decision. So that means that if any ticket holder comes to us, it's our responsibility to fix the problem," said Declan Bolger, Caps senior vice president of business operations. "We've tried to be accommodating, and the interesting thing is that there is no one other location those people have moved to. They've scattered all over the building."
Comcast SportsNet, the Caps' local TV rights holder, also thinks it has the net issue fixed. Unlike many other regional sports networks already shooting through the nets for any vertical angle, Comcast will use unmanned, robotic cameras placed near the goal judge at each end of the ice and located between the glass and bottom lip of the mesh net. Because those robotic cameras have some difficulty focusing well for shots involving the full length of the ice, the network also will lean more on horizontal camera angles to show critical replays.
"Fortunately, we're not anticipating a great deal of problems," said Bill Bell, Comcast SportsNet's chief producer for its Caps coverage. "We've spent some time researching this over the summer, and we'll have the robotic cameras in front of the netting. We'll use overhead angles with cameras installed at the scoreboard. We'll use wide-angle horizontal views. I think, with the right preparation, this is certainly less challenging for TV [than] it is for the spectators in the building."
While the adjustment period continues, a handful of teams are experimenting with colors and mesh sizes to find nets that provide the least disruption. Most teams have used only black nets, but the Philadelphia Flyers tested white yesterday for a preseason game against the Caps at First Union Center. The Carolina Hurricanes have used red. Several other teams studied clear mesh but found that to be too shiny and light-reflecting.
It's an expensive session of trial-and-error since the netting systems cost between $30,000 and $100,000 each, costs borne entirely by the individual clubs. But Bettman insists it is the only way to go.
"That adjustment period may take a little longer for some people but I remain certain that this was the right thing to do. Actually, it was the only thing to do," he said.


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