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The pucks fly in Tampa, with few major injuries

On opening day last year, hockey fan Tricia Hirsch was sitting in section 104 of the Ice Palace with her two daughters.

Five minutes into game _ the Tampa Bay Lightning battling the New York Islanders _ a puck flew over the protective glass and smashed into her right cheek.

"It didn't knock me out," said Hirsch, who lives in Tampa. "I don't know how. I was seeing black spots. People came running over. My husband took both the girls away because there was a lot of bleeding. It was very scary for them."

Hirsch, who left the game with a towel pressed to her head, had 10 fractures in her face. Her cheekbone was smashed.

Today, she considers herself lucky. Her daughter, then 3, had been in her lap.

"She would be dead if that puck hit her," Hirsch said.

On Monday, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died from injuries she got at an Ohio hockey game Saturday. The puck had struck her forehead; her neck snapped back, causing fatal artery damage. It was the first time in NHL history a fan died from a flying hockey puck.

Those close to the game say errant hockey pucks are more common than people may think. "Pucks go into the stands a few times a game," said Bill Wickett, spokesman for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But serious injury like what Hirsch experienced is rare, he said.

Two years ago, a puck flew into section 126 at the Ice Palace and hit a 7-month-old girl squarely on the head.

The child, sitting on a family friend's lap, let out a loud cry, but she was not knocked unconscious. She wasn't even badly injured.

She was treated that night at Tampa General Hospital, and left with a bruise over her left eye.

Tampa Bay Lighting player Fredrik Modin, who dealt the injuring slap shot, was devastated. His flying pucks have been clocked at 102.1 mph.

"The puck deflected, and I didn't know it had hit a baby until I got back to the bench," Modin told the St. Petersburg Times after the incident.

"It really bothered me. I mean, there's nothing you can do, and it's no one's fault, but you still feel horrible."

All over the Ice Palace, fans are warned.

On the Jumbotron before games, a printed message is flashed: "Pucks can go into stands at any time." A public address announcer reads an accompanying message.

On the back of tickets, in bold, is this message: "Warning! Pucks flying into spectator area can cause serious injury. Be alert when in spectator areas."

The message isn't only for your safety. It's to protect the Lightning from the liability from such incidents as well.

"The holder of this ticket assumes all risks and danger including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by hockey pucks and sticks," the message reads.

The Ice Palace has never been sued due to a wild hockey puck. More common in lawsuits is falling. The arena has been sued, according to court records, for negligence by one person who fell at a Yanni concert and another who went down at a Garth Brooks show.

So should fans worry?

"The best thing to do is keep a watchful eye on the game at all times," said Tripp Turbiville, an emergency worker with the Tampa General Hospital/Ice Palace medic team, which works all hockey games in the 20,000-seat arena.

At each game, eight to 12 emergency workers are stationed throughout the building. They say they can reach any seat within 30 to 60 seconds.

In addition, ushers are taught to check on fans whenever a puck flys into the audience.

"We've treated just about anything you can think of," Turbiville said. "We've had people with chest pains, diabetics, falls, cardiac problems."

And puck injuries?

Most are not to the face, he said. Mostly, it's the hand or arm which is injured, he said.

Why?

"People try to catch the puck."

_ Times staff writers Robyn Blumner and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.

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