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Adam Johnson: Former NHLer Dies After Collision On Ice

By Marc Pham

Sports Editor

Photo via Will Matthews / Getty Images

On October 28, 2023, hockey star Adam Johnson was playing for Nottingham’s Panthers against Sheffield’s Steelers at the Utilitia Arena in Sheffield, England, when he collided with an opposing player, Matt Petgrave, and suffered a slash to his neck from a skate worn by the Steelers defenseman. Paramedics rushed the 29-year-old to the hospital, but he was later announced to have passed away.

The Panthers put out a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, mourning the death of the late American forward following the “freak accident”: “Adam, our number 47, was not only an outstanding ice hockey player, but also a great teammate and an incredible person with his whole life ahead of him. The Club will dearly miss him and will never ever forget him.”

Johnson made his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 21, 2019, in a 2-1 win versus the Nashville Predators after being the second-leading scorer for the American Hockey League (AHL) in the 2017-18 season. He played 13 total NHL games. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson decided to pursue a career in Europe, signing with the German club Augsburger Panther for the 2022-23 season, then the Nottingham Panthers for the 2023-24 season.

Johnson’s aunt, Kari, revealed in a video posted on Facebook that he was a “kind soul” and a “private kid” who simply wanted to be “good at hockey and have fun” – he would have “never wanted to be in the limelight like this.”

Ms. Johnson had been watching the game via a livestream with the family. After learning that he had passed away, the family “all just broke down. It was a mess, it was a nightmare, it was like it wasn't real. We were in shock; we couldn't believe this was happening.”

After news emerged of Johnson's death, fans and players gathered at the Nottingham Panthers' Motorpoint Arena to pay tribute to the late 29-year-old. Outside the stadium, they laid a colourful sea of flowers and, inside, were invited to sign books of condolences on the carpeted ice.

The Panthers have received countless well wishes and tributes to Johnson. The club started a GoFundMe page in his memory, which reached its initial goal of £5,000 within a few hours and surpassed £10,000 the same day. Additionally, the club is selling replica jerseys with Johnson’s name and number, 47, for £47. All the proceeds from this sale, coupled with the GoFundMe page, will go towards a charity chosen by Johnson’s family, based in Minnesota, United States.

Johnson’s death has had a profound impact on the hockey community, sparking discussions about the necessity of requiring neck guards for players. In the wake of the incident, top hockey leagues worldwide are now addressing concerns regarding player safety.

The English Ice Hockey Association (EIHA) has stated that neck guards will be mandatory from January 2024, for all on-ice activities: “Our responsibility is not only to avert the recurrence of such a heartbreaking accident but also to pre-emptively address other foreseeable incidents in the future.”

Meanwhile, the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), UK’s top hockey division, will not mandate the use of neck guards, but “strongly encourages their use.” The EIHL is not under EIHA’s control, hence why the latter’s decision does not affect the former’s.

In North America, discussions surrounding the usage of neck protection have taken place between the NHL and their Players’ Association. Though the NHL cannot impose equipment changes without the agreement of the players’ union, commissioner Gary Bettman and Players' Association executive director Marty Walsh touched base in the immediate aftermath of Johnson's death to initiate further talks about blade safety between the league and the union.

However, some NHL teams were already ahead of the curve. The week following the incident, players of the Winnipeg Jets could be seen wearing neck guards during practice; several players on its roster were former teammates of Johnson.

Matthew Petgrave, the hockey player whose skate fatally cut Johnson’s neck, was “absolutely distraught” as teammates and others consoled him over Johnson’s death. However, he has been subjected to a slew of online hate since the tragic incident. Most comments attempted to twist the narrative that Petgrave intentionally aimed the skate to hit Johnson in the neck, while taking aim at his race.

Among others, Westin Michaud, one of Johnson’s teammates on the Panthers, has publicly called out the “uncalled” abuse directed at Petgrave on X: “I was at ice level on the bench closest to the accident, I saw both players moving fast… It's clear to me his actions were unintentional and anyone suggesting otherwise is mistaken.”

The American added that he and his teammates “wholeheartedly stand” with Petgrave. “Let's come together and not spread unwarranted hate to someone who needs our support.”



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