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Wednesday, October 2, 2002
Updated: October 8, 10:08 AM ET
Knutsen sees no reason to dig up past

Associated Press

OSLO, Norway -- Ever punctual, Espen Knutsen arrives five minutes early for his appointment at the training facility on the outskirts of Oslo.

Sitting in the cafeteria of the Top Sports Center, the forward for the Columbus Blue Jackets smiles and chats easily about any number of topics -- his nickname of "Shampoo,'' his father's barber shop, his passion for hockey, golf and water-skiing.

But his slightly lopsided grin vanishes when he's asked about Brittanie Cecil, the 13-year-old girl who died in March after Knutsen's slap shot was deflected into the stands and struck her.

Knutsen's grimace looks almost as if he's taken a stiff body check, and his lips become so taut that they almost disappear.

He falls silent for a moment amid the murmur of conversation and the clink of coffee cups, glasses and cutlery in the cafeteria.

"No. I've got to get done with it,'' he says softly, his expression mixing anguish and anger. "There is no reason to tear that open again.''

Cecil was seeing her first hockey game on March 16 when she was hit by a puck shot by Knutsen and deflected by a defender. She died two days later, just before her 14th birthday. The ticket had been an early gift from the eighth grader's father.

The death led to the NHL's decision to erect safety netting at all its arenas in North America this season.

Back home in Norway for the summer, the 30-year-old Knutsen, who is a father himself, has coped with the tragedy by refusing to talk about it.

"I think he has handled it very well,'' says his father, Erik Knutsen. "Maybe it is because he is so completely without blame that he has been able to distance himself a little bit.''

It also reawakened a painful memory for the Knutsen family: In 1996, Knutsen's mother, Gro, also was hit in the head by a puck during one of Espen's games in Sweden's elite division.

"A puck flew over the net and hit her in the forehead,'' Erik Knutsen recalls. "It was a pass that was deflected, but a pass can be as hard as a shot. ... It can happen anywhere.''

She needed stitches but suffered no lingering effects.

The elder Knutsen says his family feels sorrow for the Cecils, and for the "terrible situation'' his son has been in.

A columnist for the Columbus Dispatch described Espen Knutsen as a second victim of the tragedy.

A month after the accident, Sports Illustrated depicted Knutsen on its cover, with the letters "BC'' for Brittanie Cecil on a heart-shaped sticker on his helmet. The cover, which Knutsen has called "completely unnecessary,'' also showed a picture of the girl with the headline "Death of a Fan.''

"Of course, I'm the one that took the shot. I'm the one who has to live with that,'' Knutsen said shortly after the death. "It was an accident. I can't blame myself.''

In Norway, where Knutsen is a household name, there was an outpouring of sympathy and support for the Cecil family, and for the player.

"Everyone feels for Knutsen,'' wrote the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet.

Knutsen grew up in Oslo's Valerengen area, then a slightly down-on-its-luck neighborhood near the capital city's center, where his father has run a barbershop for about half a century. It's near the Jordal Stadium, where Knutsen spent much of his life.

His father's nickname is "Soap,'' so the son ended up as "Shampoo.''

Espen was small, plump and had to wear hand-me-down clothes from his older sisters, including a pair of white ballet slippers. He almost blinded himself when he was 8 by throwing a dart in the air and watching it fall into his eye. A nice kid with a knack for mischief.

Knutsen started playing hockey and soccer when he was about 6 for the Valerengen Sports Club.

"He was always a talent,'' recalls Haukeland, his former coach. "He is really very nice and positive to those around him. He always has been. But when he plays, he demands a great deal of himself and everyone who plays with him.''

The NHL was not one of Knutsen's boyhood dreams. At that time there was only one state-run TV channel in this Scandinavian nation of 4.5 million and it didn't show NHL games.

"We almost never saw the NHL here in Norway,'' Knutsen says.

At 15, he faced a choice -- soccer or hockey -- knowing he couldn't reach top levels in both.

"I thought hockey was more fun than soccer,'' he says. "I think it's just as much fun as ever, but I don't have that many years left, four or five years more, I guess.''

At 18, Knutsen turned to hockey full time, playing for the Valerengen Sports Club and gaining national recognition.

The passion for the club is a family affair. His father was on the club board and his two older sisters, Gry and Tina, still work at a kiosk at the nearby Jordal Stadium. In the back room of the Knutsen barbershop is a small shrine of Espen's triumphs, with clippings, pictures and jerseys.

Although Norwegians excel in most winter sports, the country has never been a hockey power. So Knutsen went to neighboring Sweden in 1994 to play in that nation's elite division team, Djurgarden, in Stockholm.

The same year, he was Norway's player of the year and competed at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, just 110 miles north of his hometown. Norway finished 11th of 12 teams.

His debut in the NHL, as the third Norwegian ever, was in 1997 with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and he scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 10, 1997, in a 1-1 tie with Ottawa. A month later, he was sent down to the minor league team in Cincinnati.

For the 1998-99 season, he was back at Djurgarden, where he led his team in scoring and to the 2000 championship.

He joined the Blue Jackets last season and has signed for two more years at $1.35 million and then $1.5 million.

Knutsen distances his professional life from a private one that centers on his family, including his Norwegian wife, Hanne Undli and their 3-year-old son, Emil.

Jon Haukeland, who coached him from age 13 to 18, says Knutsen has the strength of mind to get past the tragedy.

"He's probably pretty fed up with the attention by now,'' Haukeland says. "But he is very secure in his own abilities, and I think that helps give him the self confidence to move past this.''

Blue Jackets fans seem behind him. In his first home game after Cecil's death, he had a breakaway late in the first period that was stopped by the goalie. The sellout crowd of 18,136 gave him a standing ovation anyway.

"I hope the team will do a little better, and that I myself will do better,'' he says.