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|| News Item: Posted 2002-10-01

Fan Safety Concerns Result in Changes at NHL Arenas
By Mark Buckner, St. Louis Blues

Another NHL season just around the corner, and when you arrive at the rink to cover a game you'll be greeted with some changes as the league moves to increase fan safety. The tragic death last March of a young spectator was the first fan fatality in league history, which spans more than 85 years.

For those unfamiliar with the incident, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil was struck in the head by a puck that was deflected into the stands at a Columbus Blue Jackets game, and died two days later. An autopsy revealed that her death was caused not by the impact itself, but by a very rare injury to an artery in her neck caused by her head snapping backward.

While this was by all accounts a tragic accident and unlikely to be repeated, the league felt strongly that some response was in order to enhance spectator safety and preclude any such tragedy in the future. Some of these changes will impact photographers covering NHL games and will require a period of adjustment for photographers, fans and the league itself. Likewise, a new regulation may drastically reduce overall game time and may have a positive impact on the amount of actual playing time prior to your deadline.

First and most noticeable will be the installation of protective netting behind both goals. The netting will be attached to the top of the high glass, and the height will vary somewhat from venue to venue, based on the architecture of the building. Reported heights range from twenty-five to nearly seventy feet.

The nets will be black nylon, and the sample I saw resembled the type of netting often found in soccer goals. Shooters who are accustomed to using a long lens from the stands behind one goal to shoot down-ice to the opposite goal will now be shooting through this netting, or at least trying to. Whether this will create a problem or not will depend largely on the particular building. Obviously, the distance from the photographer to the net and the aperture used will determine if the netting can be obscured by shooting with shallow depth of field.

These nets are installed by league mandate, and are not optional, so we're all just going to have to give it a try and see how it works out. I've shot in many European rinks where this netting has been standard equipment for years, and was able to either shoot through it or find an alternate position to avoid it altogether.

Another league-mandated change is minimum standard for the height of the lower glass along the side dasherboards at five feet, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. In some arenas this will result in the glass being raised by more than two feet. The impact of this on photographer will be to render some overhead positions useless, and others less desirable.

At the very least, shooters who depend on the overhead position cover the whole ice surface to make the "safe" picture to meet deadline will find that their definition of "whole ice surface" has been revised. The higher glass will certainly block more of the action on the near side of the rink. In some buildings, traditional overhead positions may have to be abandoned for a higher perch and the requisite longer lens. Teams will be looking at this situation as exhibition games are played, with an eye toward finding new photo positions that work for both photographers and fans.

Changes are in store for shooters who prefer ice-level positions as well. A new policy from NHL Images may remove some of the most productive shooting positions in buildings all around the league. The new policy statement, which has yet to be finalized and published to the teams and media outlets, provides that no holes may be located more than six feet into the radius beginning at the goal line. In our building in St. Louis that will likely result in a reduction of ice-level shooting positions from seven to four.

The three we anticipate being lost are by far the most coveted positions in the building, and are always occupied for all three periods. According to NHL Images Director Anita Cechowski, they are sensitive to this situation and will evaluate the six-foot limitation on a case-by-case basis, with fan safety the overriding concern.

Other factors to be considered are the location of the aisles and potential interference with the paying public's view of the game. Some buildings with holes located almost behind the goal will "certainly loose those positions," Cechowski said. The league understands that it may be "a challenge to find new positions in some buildings" according to Chechowski. As the league struggles to balance the needs of photographers and the need to appear proactive on fan safety, a seeming "Catch-22" in the same photo policy statement from NHLI recommends a minimum of eight holes in the glass.

With rinkside seats bringing a premium price it is highly unlikely that teams will be willing to give up that season ticket income to accommodate photo positions, and there simply aren't enough aisles to allow for eight shooters without several being located beyond the six foot limit in most arenas. Time will tell if the building-to-building evaluations by NHLI will result in restoration of any of these positions, but individual teams will likely have to make a specific request for such an evaluation.

Different teams' P.R. and building operations staff will approach this situation differently, depending on how they view the importance of accommodating still photographers. (Good luck to all you guys in Motown!) Additionally, the new regs require that the holes be covered when not in use by a credentialed photographer. In some cases you may be asked to be sure to replace the cover when you leave your position. This includes the time between periods, where young fans are tempted to stick their arms through the holes or possible drop items onto the ice.

Usher staff will be asked to be vigilant to make sure the covers aren't removed by fans, like that guy who sits next to you who always has something extremely clever to shout through the hole at the referee or an opposing player while you're trying to do your job.

The other change is a new game regulation rather than a physical change in the arena. It involves the so called "Hurry-Up Face Off", as explained in a recent article by Brian Biggane in the Palm Beach Post: "After a stoppage, teams have eight seconds to change lines, five seconds to line up and five more to have the puck dropped. If they dawdle, they get one warning, then a two-minute penalty. If they're not set, the puck may be dropped anyway." This has resulted in marked reduction in overall game time during preseason contests thus far, according to Amy Early, Director of NHL Media Relations.

Early said the it was too soon to tell if the trend would carry over into the regular season, but some preseason games were played in just over two hours, a reduction of around thirty minutes. Hopefully this will increase the amount of action available to shooters prior to deadline, and get everyone home (or on to their next assignment) sooner. Or, more time for a post-game round of cocktails!

In our building, shooters who have become accustomed to having an ice-level position for the entire game will probably be faced with some sort of rotating period-by-period arrangement. The folks from the AP and other wires who like to keep a shooter in an overhead position may be looking for higher ground to get over the taller glass.

>From what I have learned, this is likely to be the case in most buildings around the league, although some buildings are not affected at all, usually because they have no holes and taller glass to begin with. Overall, the quality of images may suffer, and it will be more challenging to make compelling action pictures, but this will be a small price to pay if the changes serve to prevent another fatality.

In actual practice here in St. Louis, during our first preseason game the number of photographers was low, so we didn't have to employ any type of mandated rotation, although, Elsa (no last name-like Cher) of Allsport/Getty had to shoot overhead for part of the game until the AP relinquished one of the four holes that remained. Overall, reviews of the changes were less than favorable.

Tim Umphreys from Pacific Trading Cards estimated that he lost the ability to cover over twenty-five percent of the ice surface from the overhead position where he normally shoots, and moving to a higher vantage point to see more over the higher glass was not an option. "If you go up higher all you'll see are the tops of heads," said Umphreys. Those who lost their ice-level positions behind the goal line (myself included) were unanimously disappointed with the side-angle holes that were left.

SI hockey uber-shooter Dave Klutho was particularly concerned with the limitations imposed by the side angle. "Coverage will absolutely suffer," Klutho said, expressing hopes that the regulations might be reconsidered.

The loss of the down-ice angle eliminates all possibility of head-on images of players shooting the puck. Although I have the enviable option of using an open box between the benches, that angle makes for poor images of the offensive side of the game, for which the down-ice holes were so great.

The netting in the "end zones" received mixed reviews, photographically speaking. Shooting down ice through the mesh with a 400mm at f:4.5 resulted in a noticeable out of focus grid pattern in the lighter areas, even on action as close as the near blue line. These images might be usable for newspaper reproduction, but even that is questionable. Higher resolution reproduction would require some careful Photoshop work. Adding a 1.4 converter to further reduce depth-of-field helped considerably, but resulted in a very tight crop on digital.

Also, the black netting seemed to act as a neutral density filter, requiring an additional third- stop of exposure. (A "Leading Off' shot in the September 30th issue of SI shows the situation pretty clearly, although the focus is on the netting.) On another positive note, the hurry-up face-off did shave considerable time off of the game. Now if we could just do something about the TV time-outs!

So, just when you thought that small chip in your DIT camera made it safe to show up at a hockey game with only an 80-200, it's time to look into a new rolling case to lug the long glass and avoid back surgery! Just don't let the boss know that the games are getting over in time for you to cover that junior-high volleyball tournament in the candle-lit gym.

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