On October 28th, Adam Johnson died after his neck was slashed by the blade of an ice skate. (Read about the incident here). Johnson’s death spurred a public conversation as to how hockey should work to avoid similar future tragedies. In the past few weeks, several players have added neck protection to their uniforms, and many leagues have mandated that their participants wear neck protection.
In the wake of Johnson’s death, the South Yorkshire Police opened an inquiry that they stated would “take some time.” The investigators were reviewing footage, talking to witnesses, and working closely with a variety of experts.
Now, 17 days after the accident, it has been reported that the South Yorkshire Police have made an arrest in connection with Johnson’s death. A man was arrested with suspicion of manslaughter and has since been released on bail.
The police have not yet released the identity of the man they arrested, though it is assumed to be Matt Petgrave, the skater who caused Johnson’s life-ending injury. Matt Petgrave has a history of bad acts on the ice, resulting in numerous suspensions.
The South Yorkshire Police are keeping the person’s identity under wraps. They reaffirmed that their investigation is ongoing and that they plan to handle the investigation with the “same professionalism, fairness and sensitivity as any other.”
The investigation into Johnson’s death shows that the South Yorkshire Police are taking the situation seriously. But, in reality, how likely is it that someone could actually be convicted of manslaughter for Johnson’s death? The chances seem slim, but not impossible.
There is no precedent for people being charged with manslaughter in a UK sports event. However, in recent years, two NHL players were criminally charged for their on-ice conduct. In 2000, Marty McSorely was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon for a two-handed slash to Donald Brasher with his stick. Then, in 2004, Todd Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault for sucker punching Steve Moore. McSorely was sentenced to 18 months of probation and Bertuzzi reached a plea deal where he completed one year of probation and 80 hours of community service. Both of these instances took place on the ice, but were intentional acts and outside of normal play.
Petgrave’s karate-like kick is not as black and white. His kick did occur mid-play, but anyone who has watched the video will tell you that it did not look accidental. The backward and upward motion of Petgrave’s leg did not look natural and appeared intentional. No one wants to believe the kick was on purpose, but in watching the video it is hard to grasp how it could have been an accident.
Injuries happen every day in hockey. They are expected in high-contact sports. The injury and resulting death of Johnson from his collision with Petgrave is not your typical injury. There is a sense that this was not incidental. Accordingly, this case may play out similarly to that of McSorely and Bertuzzi. However, charging and prosecuting Petgrave could result in more injuries being seen as crimes.
The legal consequences of Petgrave’s actions will continue to unfold. It is a silver lining that the South Yorkshire Police are handling Johnson’s case with diligence and that countless hockey leagues are working to prevent similar tragedies going forward.
Image Credit: Reuters
 https://www.npr.org/2023/11/14/1212945117/adam-johnson-hockey-death-arrest; https://www.si.com/fannation/bringmethesports/nhl-news-and-rumors/manslaughter-arrest-made-for-death-of-hockey-star-adam-johnson; https://www.southyorks.police.uk/find-out/news-and-appeals/2023/november-2023/update-after-man-arrested-following-death-of-ice-hockey-player-in-sheffield/