How Will Hockey Respond to Adam Johnson’s Tragic Death?

Adam Johnson, 29, a former Pittsburgh Penguin, sadly succumbed to a skate cut to his neck on Saturday, October 28th.[1]  Johnson was playing for the Nottingham Panthers in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) when his throat was cut by a skate blade during a collision with Matt Petgrave, 31, of the Sheffield Steelers.[2]

Following the collision with Petgrave, Johnson was bleeding heavily.[3]  He received medical attention on the ice, including CPR, until an ambulance arrived.[4]  Johnson’s bleeding would not let up and he later died at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital.[5]

The tragedy, which the Panthers called a “freak accident,” has prompted a UK police investigation and a review of hockey’s safety requirements.[6] 

Petgrave, who karate-like kicked Johnson, has received both support and condemnation from the hockey community and the internet.  Panthers players Victor Bjorkung and Westin Michaud, among others, expressed their support for Petgrave, saying they do not blame him for the incident.[7]  Plays move fast, and sometimes “freak accidents” happen.

Others, including former Canadian pro Chris Therien, were not as sympathetic to Petgrave, saying the kick looked intentional.[8]  There have also been a number of internet comments, Instagram posts, and reddit threads calling Petgrave a murderer. 

T.J. Oshie, of the Washington Capitals, said, “I think you’re always very conscious of where your skates are when you’re playing.”[9] He went on, “you always get your feet out of the way, if that makes sense. It might look terrible if someone is about to fall on someone and goes knees-first, but that’s what you do instead of trying to land on your feet. I just assume that everyone else has that same mentality. But those very freak things happen.”[10] 

The general response seems to be that Petgrave did not intend to kill or even severely harm Johnson, but, that the kick did look deliberate.  Johnson’s family appears to echo this sentiment.  They would like to see a full investigation of the incident and justice for Johnson.[11] 

The South Yorkshire Police have an ongoing inquiry that will “take some time.”[12]  Investigators on the case are reviewing footage, talking to witnesses, and working closely with an array of experts.[13] 

Petgrave could face criminal action, but it seems impractical and unlikely.[14]  A criminal prosecution would require proof that the collision was more than just a freak accident.[15]  There is also a possibility of civil action against Petgrave, or even litigation involving the league.[16]  The legal consequences of Johnson’s death will unfold as the investigation evolves.  

It is unfortunate that it takes a death like Johnson’s for people to acknowledge hockey’s safety issues.  Johnson’s story touches many as he was an American playing in Europe and a former NHLer.  One would hope that his story can help make hockey safer.

Now, the goal will be to keep the momentum of this discussion going.  All too often a tragic incident happens, people react, and then the news cycle continues.  High-profile members of the hockey world can help prevent these “freak accidents.”  For example, NHL players can set the standard of wearing neck protection and promoting it in the lower levels.  T.J. Oshie, who has a hockey apparel brand, reported that his company sold out of its neck protection just one day after Johnson’s death. 

Effective immediately, the English Ice Hockey Association (EIHA) issued a strong recommendation that all players wear a neck guard.[17]  Going forward, neck protection will be mandatory at all levels of English Ice Hockey beginning January 1, 2024.[18]  The EIHA will be reviewing all aspects of player safety, including the use of helmets, and mouth and facial protection.[19]  It will also provide ongoing guidance relating to the improvement of player safety.[20]  The EIHA does not oversee the EIHL, the league in which Johnson was playing.[21] 

In North America, the Penguins organization will now require neck guards in its lower levels (AHL and ECHL).[22]  The Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League are also mandating neck protection for all players.[23]  At this time, USA Hockey does not mandate neck guards.  The NHL and NHLPA are also discussing requiring neck guards. 

Rest in Peace Adam Johnson #47.

 Image Credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP


[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.


[7] Id.

[8] Id.


[10] Id.


[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.




[19] Id.

[20] Id.


[22] Id.

[23] ;

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