Matt Petgrave and Adam Johnson's Fatal Mid-Game Ice Hockey Collision Has a Wide Impact

On Nov. 18, ice hockey fans gathered to watch the U.K. team Nottingham Panthers return to the ice for the first time for a memorial game, in honor of their teammate, Adam Johnson. The American athlete died on Oct.28 after his neck was cut by a skate blade during a mid-game collision with opponent Matt Petgrave in Sheffield, England.

The incident has led to the arrest of a man on suspicion of manslaughter, who has since been released on bail, and has reignited safety debates surrounding the sport.

Here's what we know.

Who was Adam Johnson and how did he die?

Johnson, a Minnesota native, played NCAA college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth and in American league clubs.

The 29-year-old appeared in 13 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, before spending 2020-21 in Sweden with the Malmo Redhawks and 2022-23 in Germany with the Augsburger Panther. Earlier this year, he joined the Nottingham Panthers, part of the U.K.’s Elite Ice Hockey League.

Johnson was playing for the Panthers in a Challenge Cup game against the Sheffield Steelers at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena when his neck was cut by Petgrave’s skate blade after they made contact during the second period of the game.

Video shows Johnson skating toward the net as Petgrave, skating toward Johnson, collides with another Panthers player. Petgrave’s leg kicks up as he begins to fall and his skate hits Johnson. Both players fall to the ice. A referee stops the game as Johnson rises, blood on his jersey.

South Yorkshire police said Johnson was seriously injured during the game and later pronounced dead at a hospital. A post-mortem examination confirmed he died as a result of a fatal neck injury, police said.

The Panthers said in a statement on Oct. 29 that the team was “truly devastated” and called Johnson’s death “a 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 team said. The club’s CEO Omar Pacha remembered Johnson’s humor, kindness, humility and respect at a memorial service held on an ice rink in the hockey player’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota.

At the memorial service, Johnson’s girlfriend Ryan Wolfe said he “seemed to have it all figured out” and remembered his ideas of starting a farm or coffee shop or being a stay-at-home dad with a “whole van full of kids.”

Who is Matt Petgrave? 

31-year-old Canadian Matt Petgrave joined the Sheffield Steelers in 2022, according to his bio. Coach Aaron Fox has said Petgrave is “an impact player and can be a game-changer.”

Petgrave played for the University of New Brunswick before turning professional in 2017 and playing for teams in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Canada and the U.S. He was picked for the mid-level East Coast Hockey League’s All-Star team in 2018.

Cary Kaplan, who served as general manager for the ECHL’s Brampton Beast during Petgrave’s 2016-2020 stint at the club, told the Toronto Star that Petgrave is “a great guy…and a responsible hockey player.”

Petgrave’s agent, Casey Kesselring, is quoted as telling the Associated Press that he had no comment on the situation.

What’s happened since Adam Johnson’s death? 

The Elite Ice Hockey League temporarily postponed games on Oct. 29. The Sheffield Steelers said in a statement on Nov. 3 that the entire hockey community was “rocked” by the tragic news.

Petgrave's team, Sheffield Steelers, honoured Johnson with a moment of silence when they returned to the ice on Nov. 12. Fans reportedly gave Petgrave, who didn’t play, a round of applause when his photo appeared on the scoreboard.

“The safety and wellbeing of players and coaching staff is our main priority during this incredibly difficult time,” the Steelers said. “All of them have access to professional mental health support to help them come to terms with the tragic events of last weekend. Each will return to the arena in their own time, and we are giving them all our full support.”

On Nov. 14, South Yorkshire police arrested a man on suspicion of manslaughter in Johnson’s death, but did not identity him. The man was released on bail on Nov. 15.

Detective Chief Superintendent Becs Horsfall said in a statement that “our investigation launched immediately following this tragedy and we have been carrying out extensive enquiries ever since to piece together the events which led to the loss of Adam in these unprecedented circumstances.”

"We have been speaking to highly specialized experts in their field to assist in our enquiries and continue to work closely with the health and safety department at Sheffield City Council, which is supporting our ongoing investigation,” Horsfall said.

On Nov. 18, the Nottingham Panthers team and fans memorialized Johnson and retired his No. 47 jersey.

On the Panthers’ website, the team said it has launched an official fundraiser, with permission from Johnson’s family, to create the “Love for Hibbing and Hockey Memorial Fund” to support local charitable activities in Johnson’s hometown area.

What discussions about safety are now taking place?

The lethal incident has reignited debates about safety in the sport. Other professional ice hockey players have been seriously injured or died as a result of injuries incurred during games. Two had their necks sliced open by skates, one in 1989 and another in 2008, per the Associated Press.

The English Ice Hockey Association, which governs the sport’s level below the Elite Ice Hockey League, will reportedly require all players in England to wear neck guards from the start of 2024. TIME has reached out to the Elite Ice Hockey League regarding any new proposed safety measures.

Meanwhile, safety debates are also happening in relation to the NHL.

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