Jackets 20: Espen Knutsen deserves to be remembered for more than tragedy
The first Blue Jacket all star
After a an off-season hiatus, we’re back to celebrating 20 years of the Columbus Blue Jackets by profiling 20 key players from the franchise’s history. Today we go way back to the inaugural team to salute an early star player: Espen Knutsen.
Knutsen took a long path to become an NHL regular. He was the 204th pick of the 1990 draft (back when that was a 10th round pick, a round which no longer exists) by the Hartford Whalers (a team that no longer exists). He remained with the club Valerenga in his home country of Norway. He led them to three straight championships from 1991 through 1993, scoring well over a point per game in each season. In 1994 he had the honor of playing for the host country at the Olympic ice hockey tournament in Lillehammer, and was named the Norwegian Player of the Year.
He also earned the nickname “Shampoo” for his famous flow:
In 1997, after three years in Sweden’s top league, Knutsen finally came across the pond, joining the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who had acquired his rights a year earlier. This made him just the third Norwegian player to play in the NHL (Five more have joined since then, most notably Mats Zuccarello and former Blue Jacket Ole-Kristian Tollefsen). He scored three goals in just 19 games with the Ducks, and spent most of the season with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in Cincinnati. He returned to Sweden, where his Djurgardens IF squad won the 2000 championship while he led the league in assists and points in the postseason.
That fall, he returned to Ohio to make a second attempt in the NHL at the age of 28. Thanks to an expansion roster that was low on talent, Knutsen was able to play a key role in the inaugural season. He led the Blue Jackets in assists (42) and was second in points (53) to Geoff Sanderson.
Jackets 20: Geoff Sanderson lit the lamp
The high point of that inaugural season for Knutsen was a five point effort against the Calgary Flames. This remains the franchise record for both assists and points in a game (Four other players are tied, most recently Artemi Panarin with another five assist game in 2017).
In the 2001-02 season, Knutsen’s role increased, with an average of over 20 minutes a game over 77 games. His scoring declined, however, down to 42 points. This was still good for third on the team, behind Ray Whitney and Mike Sillinger (father of 2021 draftee Cole Sillinger, of course). In January of that season, Knutsen recorded his only NHL hat trick (the fourth in the young franchise’s history).
In February, the NHL All-Star Game used a “North America vs. the World” format to help promote that year’s Olympics. Knutsen was selected for Team World, becoming the first Blue Jackets’ all star selection.
On March 16, 2002, a horrible tragedy befell the Blue Jackets and derailed Knutsen’s career. Calgary defenseman Derek Morris deflected a Knutsen shot, which flew into the stands and struck Brittanie Cecil, a young fan who was celebrating her upcoming 14th birthday with her family. Though she was able to walk from her seat, Cecil passed away two days later due to clotting and swelling in the brain. Her death shook the league, and led to all arenas installing netting behind the goals.
The Jackets wore a helmet sticker honoring her for the rest of the season, and a picture of Knutsen wearing said sticker made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with the headline “THE DEATH OF A FAN.” It always struck me as a very unfair choice of photo, as though it was placing blame on Knutsen. It was a freak accident, but it weighed on him from that point forward. He was limited by injuries over the next two seasons, but when he played he was significantly less productive. Just 14 games into the 2003-04 season, he left the NHL for good and returned to Europe, though he retired less than two years later. Knutsen has remained in hockey, serving in a series of roles including coach and general manager of his old club, Valerenga.
In 2010, he returned to Columbus as part of the team’s 10th anniversary celebration. A day before dropping the puck at Nationwide, he got to meet with Brittanie Cecil’s family for the first time. The Columbus Dispatch documented the meeting then. Knutsen and the family got to share their perspective on the incident, and bring each other closure.
“I don’t hold you responsible; I never did,” Naudascher told Knutsen at Nationwide Arena during a private, one-hour meeting. “It was an accident, and you should never have blamed yourself for anything. I wanted to tell you all this back then.”
“I can’t imagine what it was like for you, for your family,” Knutsen said.
“It was a terrible accident that I couldn’t believe,” he said. “I saw her walk out of the arena and couldn’t believe it when I heard what happened. I’m the one that is thankful for meeting you.”
“It really shook me, my teammates and everyone around the team more than people could ever know,” Knutsen said.
I was in attendance for that ceremonial puck drop, and was glad to join the standing ovation which Knutsen received. His career in Columbus ended on a sour note, but he needed to be reminded the affection that Blue Jackets fans still hold for him. He was a fun player that helped fans like myself — or Brittanie Cecil — fall in love with the Jackets in those early days.