Tragedy on ice: The death of Adam Johnson and how it has stoked online hate

After the death of Nottingham Panthers' Adam Johnson - Should the world of ice hockey be doing more to protect its players?

Nathan Dove
6th November 2023
Image Credit - X @BBCRNS
It was meant to be another classic instalment of British Ice Hockey’s most prominent fixture. However, October 28th’s clash between the Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers will be sadly remembered due to the tragic scenes that unfolded that night.

During the 2nd period, in front of the 8,000 fans in attendance at the Utilita Arena, Nottingham’s American forward Adam Johnson suffered a horrific throat laceration after a freak collision with the skate of Sheffield defenceman Matt Petgrave. Without going into too much detail of the harrowing scenes that followed, the 29-year-old Johnson collapsed on the ice and as medics attended to his injuries, players from both sides locked arms to form a protective ring around Johnson before spectators were swiftly evacuated from the arena. Unfortunately, Johnson suffered extreme loss of blood and was pronounced dead at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital.

The announcement of Johnson’s passing came the following morning, and the ice hockey world went into a period of mourning, with the cancellation of games in the UK and moments of silence being observed in North America. Whilst tributes poured in from every corner of the sporting world, what became apparent was the talent that Johnson possessed. Born in Minnesota, Johnson had been named a USHL All-Star in 2015 and had carried his University of Minnesota Duluth side to runners-up in the North American’s top collegiate competition. Johnson continued his impressive form in senior hockey, with top performances in the American Hockey League resulting in the 24-year-old being called up to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the world’s premier ice hockey league, the NHL. Whilst Johnson’s time in the NHL was brief, playing the rest of his career in the top-flight divisions of Swedish, German, and British hockey, he did manage to score for the Penguins, in front of his family, in his home state of Minnesota.

Whilst the ice hockey community still grieves Johnson, questions have arisen regarding the circumstances of his death. Even though ice hockey has garnered the reputation of being one of the most violent professional team sports, mortal injuries are an incredibly rare occurrence. Instances of skate blades making contact with players above shoulder height are actually more common than non-hockey fans assume, with an example happening in the NHL only 3 days before Johnson’s death when Boston Bruins centre Jakub Lauko was hit just below the eye from a stray skate blade. Just as in any sport, players understand that these types of injuries are an occupational hazard, however this has not stopped those less educated in the norms of ice hockey from maliciously projecting their own opinion onto the tragic events of October 28th.

Due to the mainstream reporting of Johnson’s death, news of the incident has spread like wildfire across social media platforms, leading to certain groups of online trolls perpetuating the story that Petgrave intentionally meant to grievously injure Johnson. The Canadian defender has received vast swathes of spiteful online abuse, with some of the worst examples labelling Petgrave a ‘murderer’ and even characterising the accident as ‘Anti-White terrorism’, stating ‘[W]e have become so detached from reality that you can watch a black man murder someone on national TV, and nothing happens’. Whilst an investigation by South Yorkshire police has commenced, Johnson’s Panthers teammates have come to the defence of Petgrave, with Swede Victor Bjorkung stating ‘its so insane that people think its deliberate - What I can say to those who believes otherwise is listen to those who were there and those who saw it in real time…it was a complete accident’. Another teammate of Johnson, Westin Michaud, has addressed the online abuse that Petgrave has received stating: ‘We wholeheartedly stand with Matt Petgrave. The hate that Matt is receiving is terrible and completely uncalled for’.

Whilst social media has regrettably shown the darker side of the response to this incident, there have been some more positive outcomes from this decidedly tragic situation, namely the introduction of regulation which would make neck protection mandatory. The governing body of the sport in England, the EIHA, have stated that they ‘bear both a legal and a moral obligation to respond in a measured and pragmatic way’, with the rule officially coming into effect in 2024. This decision has been praised by experts and professionals across the pond including NHL all-time points leader Wayne Gretzky, who stated ‘hopefully we’re going to see kids coming into the [National Hockey] League with neck guards on and I am all for that’.

Unfortunately, the events of October 28th live in infamy as one of the darkest days in the sport of ice hockey. However, whilst it is easy to dwell on the negatives that have been born out of such a tragic event, it is important to not only focus on tremendous outpouring of love and support for Adam Johnson’s family, friends, and teammates but also to remember the career and life of a talented ice hockey player taken too soon.

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