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Bernie Wiebe and Chad Hildebrand were cheering on their Manitoba town's hockey team, the Altona Maroons, when a puck sailed into the stands on a recent Saturday night.

Pucks always go over the glass, and Mr. Wiebe had never thought twice about it before. But this one was heading straight for them.

"It skimmed the top of my head," Mr. Wiebe said. Then it slammed into his friend's temple.

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A week later, Mr. Hildebrand, 21, was dead.

Players aren't the only ones who get injured in the fast and violent sport of hockey. When a speeding chunk of frozen rubber flies into the stands, someone in the crowd is likely to be hit. It happens more often than people realize and the injuries can be even more devastating than those on the ice.

Pucks fracture fingers and jaws, shatter teeth, take out eyes and cause brain injuries. Now, after a recent death and several lawsuits filed by spectators hurt at other arenas, the hockey world is being forced to examine what has long been a dark secret of Canada's favourite sport.

"Most people are not aware of the problem," said Emile Therien, president of the Canada Safety Council. "More and more people are going to pay attention because these fatalities and injuries are happening."

No statistics are kept, but fans get injured at all levels of the sport, the National Hockey League included. But the risk may be highest at rinks below the professional level. These arenas often have glass that is too low to protect spectators, safety advocates say.

"You go into an arena and you're on your own. You're taking your life into your own hands," Louise Lanthier of Winnipeg said.

Ms. Lanthier was watching her teenage son play hockey in December of 1998 when a puck hit her in the eye. At the hospital, she said, "they told me right there that my eyeball had burst and it probably would never have sight again."

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A week later, another mother of a player on the team required seven stitches after a puck slammed into her face, Ms. Lanthier said. Not long after that, she saw a man get his nose broken.

She is circulating a petition calling on governments and sports officials to mandate protective mesh above arena glass to prevent pucks from flying into the stands.

"This is happening too often," she said. "It took someone to die to realize there's a problem here."

Mr. Hildebrand's head injury, which happened during a South East Manitoba Hockey League game, didn't appear serious at first.

"He looked slightly dazed," Mr. Wiebe said. He drove his friend to the hospital, where he was examined and released.

But at home, Mr. Hildebrand's condition worsened. He complained of a severe headache and he began slurring his words.

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"Dad, I don't know what's happening to me," he told his father, Nick Hildebrand. A few minutes later, he vomited. The father was walking his son toward the kitchen when he "felt him go completely limp," the elder Mr. Hildebrand said.

The young man slipped into a coma and died on March 3. The cause of death: an epidural hemorrhage -- bleeding in the lining of the brain.

Manitoba's chief medical examiner is investigating the circumstances that led to his death. The Altona police, who are assisting with the investigation, have been out to the rink to measure the boards and glass.

It's not the first time a Canadian spectator has been killed by a stray hockey puck. A nine-year-old Quebec girl died in 1979 after a puck hit her in the forehead during a game in Sainte-Marie.

Deaths are rare, but injuries are all too common. People who work in the hockey business see the bloody results game after game.

"Over the years I've seen some people just get plastered by pucks. People get cranked all the time. It's scary," said Brian Marshall, a linesman with 17 years of experience officiating in various junior and professional leagues, including a stint in the NHL.

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"I've seen a couple of really ugly incidents with young children," he said, including one in which a girl lost half a dozen teeth after a puck hit her in the face.

Mr. Marshall hasn't just seen others hit -- he once took a puck in the ribs while watching a senior-A game. Now, when he takes his family to a game, he chooses seats that are well out of the line of fire.

Meanwhile, injured fans have been turning to the courts.

Kayla Wickenheiser, now 10, was watching a game at the Regina Agridome on Jan. 10, 1999, when a puck struck her above the right eye. It fractured her skull and caused "serious and lasting permanent injuries," according to the statement of claim filed on her behalf.

The lawsuit accuses the arena operator, the Regina Exhibition Association, of negligence. It alleges, among other things, that the association failed to ensure that the safety glass surrounding the ice was high enough to protect fans.

Also named as defendants are the Canadian Hockey Association and Western Hockey League. The suit, filed in the Court of Queen's Bench in Regina, claims unspecified general and special damages.

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In another case, an Indiana boy fell into a coma for four days after being hit at a Windsor Spitfires game on March 20, 1997. The statement of claim says Chad Faulkner, now 13, "has been unable to return to a level of academic, social or emotional functioning previously enjoyed and will likely never do so."

The Ontario Hockey League team and the city of Windsor, which owns the rink, are accused of negligence. The suit, filed in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice, seeks $5-million in general damages, $2-million in punitive damages and another $150,000 in damages for Chad's parents and two brothers.

Many other spectators have been injured at the Windsor rink, said Steven Bezaire, a lawyer for one victim. "We will have a parade of witnesses, people who have been injured, have witnessed injuries and have brought that to the attention of management."

A statement of claim contains allegations that have not been proven in court. When contacted by The Globe and Mail, lawyers in both cases had not filed their statements of defence. But they said their clients plan to deny liability.

The glass is higher in the NHL, but that doesn't guarantee safety.

Danny Kucharsky was sitting in the front row at a Montreal Canadiens game in March of 1996. He couldn't see the play in one of the corners, so he glanced up to look at the scoreboard. At that exact moment, the puck left the ice and struck him hard on the side of his face, breaking his jaw.

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"You're at far greater risk, I would think, of being injured at a hockey game than at any other type of sporting event," said Mr. Kucharsky, who had a permanent metal plate inserted in his jaw.

Clubs don't deny the danger. To protect themselves legally, they issue warnings on tickets, on scoreboards and over public-address systems, reminding fans to watch the play because pucks leave the ice at high speed.

But despite such warnings, people continue to get hurt. One reason, according to Edmonton Oilers spokesman Bill Tuele, is that fans sometimes try to catch pucks that are coming toward them, but pull their hands away when they realize how quickly the rubber is moving. Result: Someone behind them gets smacked.

The pregame warmup is especially dangerous. Fans often talk to each other rather than watch the ice surface, where players pepper goaltenders with shots, some of which deflect into the stands.

Making matters worse, today's players are bigger and stronger than in the past, and they wield sticks made with special laminates that allow them to shoot harder.

Bob Stellick, who worked in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization from 1985 to 1997, most recently as director of business operations. has seen the damage first hand.

When the Leafs' farm team was playing in St. Catharines, Ont., in the 1980s, an opposing goaltender "shot the puck over the glass and knocked a guy's eye out," Mr. Stellick said. A few years later, when Canada's national team was playing in Newmarket, Ont., a fan was rendered unconscious.

At Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs played until last year, "we were getting a lot of people getting injured," he said.

Why not install netting above the glass, some ask, as arenas in Europe have done? NHL rinks have tried it, but fans complained that it obscured the view. It also presents a problem for television cameras.

It's hard to know how widespread such injuries are in the NHL. "It is not something that we track the way we track goals and assists and so forth," said Frank Brown, a league spokesman. But he said no fan has ever been killed by a stray puck at an NHL game.

The league has a policy governing the minimum height of protective glass, Mr. Brown said, but the specifics are confidential.

But league sources said glass behind the nets and in corners must extend eight feet (2.4 metres) above the boards and six feet on the sides.

Rinks at other league levels are a different story. The Canadian Hockey Association, which governs amateur hockey, recommends protective glass of six feet at the ends and three feet at the sides.

But the guidelines aren't enforced. Moreover, many small-town rinks can't afford to install higher glass. At the arena in Invermere, B.C., for instance, manager Phyllis Dubielewicz said she would like to raise the glass to five feet on the sides, but the $7,000 price tag is prohibitive.

"We've been lucky so far -- no serious injuries," she said.

The Hildebrand family wasn't so fortunate. As the investigation continues into Chad's death, his father is contemplating hiring a lawyer.

"I want to make sure no parents have to go through what we're going through," he said.

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