Puck Stop
Mark Poutenis

Puck Stop

It all started innocently enough-- just another tale of youth, hockey and a pretty girl. Even now, it's hard to know if the whole episode was just a series of coincidences, a piece of bad luck, or the simple unspooling of fate.

Ryan Netzer had been living in Hawaii, whiling away his days with what might be the world's least-demanding job: photographing guests on a cruise liner. "But I got island fever," he says. "Eighty-three degrees, cloudless, perfect weather day after day. I got tired of it. And I thought, 'If I could take pictures on the ocean, then I could take them in the mountains, too.'"

Just then, he heard a voice. As far as revelations go, it wasn't much: The radio happened to be on. And yet the sign was hard to ignore, an advertisement that seemed personally designed to rescue him from his depressingly idyllic Hawaiian rut: Do you want to work in beautiful Colorado, live in the Rockies and ski for free?

Yes, Ryan thought to himself. Yes, I do. He made the call, secured an interview and received an offer. Which is how, in December 1997, Ryan found himself working at Vail Resorts.

It was a nice fit, Ryan and the Rockies, and by the time three years had passed, he had settled comfortably in Avon, by now working in telecommunications. He'd even begun pitching in to the community, coaching a local kids' hockey club. In fact, it was on a winter day, during a skating clinic, that the young lady from the Colorado Avalanche promotions department showed up. She was friendly, and pretty, and when she learned that Ryan was going to be attending an upcoming hockey game at the Pepsi Center, she asked him where she might find him. He told her (nosebleeds, natch -- he was no millionaire), and Ryan thought to himself, well, this could be good.

It wasn't. Indeed, it was when events already were speeding out of control -- specifically, he remembers, as he was hurtling past the blue line, somehow still seemingly picking up speed, the ice flying beneath him, his legs tucked up into cannonball position, with nothing between him and the far boards but a pyramid of inflatable bowling pins, fans screaming at the top of their lungs -- that Ryan realized things had gone horribly wrong.

What could be more innocuous?

"They asked if I wanted to be a human hockey puck," Ryan says. "They said, 'You're gonna be put in a saucer on a giant bungee slingshot. Whoever knocks down the most pins wins.' It sounded pretty intriguing to me."

It was a natural that Ryan was at the Pepsi Center that night, in the first place. A native of Delaware, he had always made it a practice to catch the close-to-hometown Philadelphia Flyers whenever possible, wherever he happened to be. On December 13, 2000, the team was in town.

The game was going swell. Ryan and a friend had settled into their seats, when, just as promised, the promotions lady he'd met in Vail found him. Actually, it was an usher who, at her direction, had tracked him down late in the second period and asked if he wanted to participate in the evening's between-period entertainment. He'd reacted just like any 27-year-old, fun-loving, six-foot-two-inch, athletic (college soccer, tennis and archery, recreational running) guy would.

"Sure," he'd said without giving it a second thought. "Why not?"

It was thrilling! He was led down toward the ice, along with another beefy athletic guy who'd also agreed to the promotion. Ryan was wearing his Avalanche jersey, No. 23. He was given a helmet, shin pads and elbow pads to strap on. In a small room off the rink, the two contestants were prepped.

But when you sign on as a human hockey puck, where, really, is the mystery? It is a phrase as precisely descriptive as they come, a noun with a modifier, not much left to the imagination. A waiver was thrust in front of them -- general language, Ryan recalls, nothing really specific about being propelled out of giant rubber bands toward inflatable bowling pins -- and they signed without regret.

In retrospect, of course, there were clues. It's easy to piece it all together backward with the conclusion already in front of you, and anyone can follow a maze back from end to beginning. Consider, for example, the strange warning: "We won't be using the big pads we usually use to cushion your slide into the boards," the handlers had mentioned breezily three or four minutes before he was to go on the ice. "So if you feel like you're traveling too fast, just lie down and spread out on the ice."

Okay, Ryan remembers thinking vaguely...yes, of course, lie down. And yet a voice wondered: If I am sitting on a metal sled curled up like a squatting chimp, skimming across professionally manicured ice toward a wall, how, exactly, do I lie down and spread out? The intoxicating noise of the crowd and the thrill of the moment drowned out the thought, however, and he was led out onto the rink.

"They told me to smile, wave," he recalls. "You know, act like you're having fun."

It was decided that Ryan would go second. The first guy slipped out onto the ice and settled into position. The giant slingshot pocket was held by Howler, the team mascot; and two yellow-shirted assistants. Howler slipped a bit while yanking the stretchy bands back. An instant after the human slapshot sat down cross-legged in his sled, he was released and propelled forward by the contracting rubber.

His ride was an embarrassment. As he crossed first the center line and then the blue line, he began to overflow off the sled. First his butt, then his back hit the ice. The friction was effective. By the time he reached the pins, he was barely moving. He eased to a stop just in front of the pyramid. He reached out with his hand and halfheartedly knocked over a pin.

"That's almost a gutterball," the announcer scoffed over the PA. "Our second contestant tonight," he added a moment later, "is Ryan Netzer."

Ryan was confident. A mere two pins and the coveted Fox Sports schwag bag would be his! Besides, he remembers thinking, "If he didn't even reach the pins, I didn't think it was going to be particularly dangerous."

The crowd noise swelled. Techno music pulsed. A group of spectators must have made the trip from Vail, because when Ryan's address was announced, a faint cheer went up. "Pretty exhilarating," he thought giddily. "Better than seats on the glass."

"For anyone who ever has had fantasies about playing professional hockey, that's pretty cool," he says. Besides, he thought, "This is going to make for a good story at work."

The bungees were attached on either side of the rink at about the center line. Howler and his assistants tugged them back a second time. This time Howler did not slip. Perhaps to avoid another fizzled performance, they hauled the slingshot back, back, back -- all the way to the goal crease. The bands were taut. Ryan sat down on his sled. He laughed.

A second later, Howler and the crew let go. "It was a rush," Ryan admits. "Pretty rapid acceleration. It was a lot of fun -- in the beginning, anyway -- just skimming across the ice. I'd never experienced anything like that before."

As he shot toward the inflatable pins, Ryan began rotating slightly to the right. "I'm dead on for this one," he thought as he raced toward the targets. "This one is mine; I will get the schwag bag."

As he crossed the blue line, he thought, "Man! I am really hauling!"

As he came up on the pins, he thought, "Man! Those boards are really close!"

In fact, looking back, there was a very specific critical point at which winning the schwag bag ceased to hold Ryan's attention at all. "When I reached the pins, I was already thinking about the wall," he recalls. "Objective one accomplished; let's move on."

Here we must pause. For are we not intelligent people? Certainly reasonable folks should be entitled to ask sensible questions. Why do I feel sorry for a human hockey puck? Why do people who sign on to be human anythings other than "beings" deserve a claim on our sympathy? Knowing what we do about pucks, doesn't it make sense to conclude that becoming a human one is not without risk?

Many sports venues, from rinks to arenas to fields to slopes, depend on people's understanding of the unpredictable nature of sports to relieve them of responsibility for unintentional injury. Legal waivers -- both explicit and implied -- insist that people be accountable for the risks they assume simply by showing up. Cracked on the head by a hockey puck? Beaned by a baseball? Found a tree just off that blue groomer? Well, these waivers say, that's the chance you take in exchange for the pleasure of watching or playing our game.

And yet, what if there has been a mistake? What if the tragedy less resembles an athletic event attended by the standard risks of flying projectiles and bodies than an amusement-park ride gone awry? You leap off the bridge -- but the bungee cord is two feet too long. You buy your lift ticket -- but a protective pad is not placed on the lift tower. Where should our sympathies lie then?

Despite our initial eye-rolling, there is frequently a gray area. The now-defunct Denver DareDevils roller hockey team settled one lawsuit in which a spectator lost an eye when he was hit by an errant puck. He claimed the safety glass around the boards was too low to offer reasonable protection. The complaint may have seemed silly at the time, in 1996. But this past spring a young girl was killed by a hockey puck. Many professional teams are now installing nets to better protect spectators.

Skiers, too, agree to a waiver of liability whenever they purchase a lift ticket. But Vail recently lost a case in which two skiers were knocked down and injured while getting onto a lift. Perhaps it was the couple's own clumsiness. But another consideration was that the attendant who was supposed to be monitoring the lift -- presumably to prevent such accidents -- was nowhere to be found.

Or what about the ice climber who perished in a fall in Ouray last year? He agreed to a waiver before taking an instructional course for the climb; surely he understood the risks. But a judge recently allowed his wife to sue the guide. Her argument? The instructor was so hoarse with a respiratory infection that the students could not understand his instructions. Suddenly, what appeared so obvious is not so clear.

So what of Ryan Netzer, who, when we last left him, was, of his own free will, hurtling toward a stack of giant inflatable bowling pins and, just beyond that, a wall of wood and glass? What is his excuse?

Well, what about those pads that were supposed to have been attached to the boards? Where, exactly, were they? The pads -- sixteen-inch-thick blue cushions, like those used by gymnasts, only puffier -- were provided by the Denver Mattress Company, which sponsored the event. The company's name was printed on the product in white letters, a functional advertisement.

But prior to Ryan's launch, a pad had fallen off a truck. The lining had torn; foam protruded from its innards. Some Avalanche employee, at some point, apparently made the decision not to use the damaged pad -- not because of its questionable ability to buffer, however, but because of simple PR. Although no one said anything to Ryan directly, he says he does recall overhearing a conversation among the Avalanche staff -- something about not wanting to anger the event's sponsor by exposing the damaged product to public view.

And so, with Ryan speeding toward the wall where normally a pad would await him with spongy concern -- but which had been removed for corporate considerations -- where should our sympathies lie now?

"By the time you hit the center line, you wonder when you're going to stop accelerating," Ryan says. "By the blue line, you realize just how fast you're going. And by then, it's too late."

There is a videotape of that evening, taken by the Avalanche staff. Watching Ryan be propelled forward by the slingshot is deceptive. It is like watching a rocket lift off, the motion appearing impossibly slow. But at a certain point, as he passes the camera's lens, it becomes apparent just how fast he is moving.

Ryan was a strike. The pins scattered like dandelion seeds before a strong gust. Without any doubt, the schwag bag would be his. But any sense of victory was overwhelmed by the sensation that went shooting up his left leg as he then slammed into the wall just beyond the pins.

"Intense pain," Ryan recalls. "It felt like my shin guard had slipped, but when I looked down I realized it was just that I couldn't move my ankle like it normally moves."

He hopped off the ice with the help of an assistant. "They had me sit in a chair and put my leg up," he remembers. "A team trainer who was coming back to the bench stopped by to take a look at it. He grimaced. This is a guy who's seen the worst of the worst hockey injuries. So that wasn't encouraging." It was the last interaction he would have with any Avalanche staff. (The promotions lady e-mailed him later to ask how he was; Ryan didn't answer.)

A couple of paramedics packaged him up. But after they told him how much it would cost to transport him to the hospital, Ryan decided to have his friend drive him to Denver Health. There, doctors inserted two pins into his leg to stabilize the fractured tibia and fibula. The ligaments that had pulled off his ankle would heal with time.

Two surgeries later, the bill has mounted to $17,000, about $5,000 of which Ryan has had to pay. He has sued the Avalanche, of course, for unspecified damages, because, well, that's what you do when things go wrong these days. His attorney says the puck promotion stopped after his glide to disaster. (Michael Marion, an attorney representing the team, declined to comment on any aspect of the case. But Joseph Bloch, Ryan's attorney, says the team claims that its waiver absolves it of liability.) An apology would have helped.

The worst part of the whole mess, though, is being only 29 years old and having to be cautious at the advice of his doctor. It's unnatural, particularly in a ski town. "I used to be a serious trail runner, but now I can't do that," Ryan says. "And I have to stick to groomers; I don't do anything complex, not like I used to. I was going to coach youth hockey again this year. But I'm scared of hurting myself. I don't want to risk it."

"I consider myself pretty good-natured," he adds. "I'm pretty laid-back. I like to have fun, but I also have common sense. I've skateboarded, but I've never skitched on the back of a car. I'm not an adrenaline junkie.

"I guess you could say I'm into sensible adventure."


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