The clock has just struck 8.15pm and inside Sheffield’s Utilita Arena a showdown between the two biggest rivals in British ice hockey is simmering towards what promises to be a gripping climax.
Moments ago, a burly Canadian named Patrick Watling smashed the puck into the top corner of the visiting side’s goal, putting the orange-clad home team, the Steelers, 2-1 ahead in a closely contested cup game.
Most of the 8,000-strong crowd, which includes many families decked out in Halloween-themed fancy dress, are now hoping this slender lead will hold until the second of the game’s three time periods.
Yet, with five minutes to go, Adam Johnson, who plays for the visiting Nottingham Panthers, makes a dangerous break up the left-hand side of the rink, snaking his way into the attacking zone.
The awful sequence of events that unfolds in the next few seconds of Saturday night’s encounter will be seen, and talked about, around the world.
Adam Johnson, who plays for Nottingham Panthers, died after his throat was slashed by a skating blade during a match against Sheffield
The contact between Matt Petgrave (pictured) and Adam Johnson at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena has raised an awkward question
Johnson’s girlfriend Ryan Wolfe, who moved to the UK with him this year and had to identify his body at the hospital, shared a photo on Instagram: ‘My sweet, sweet angel. I’ll miss you for ever and love you always.’
Johnson’s fatal incident has sparked a debate over the safety and culture of this fast and highly physical sport
Adam Johnson, seconds before the freak incident at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena on Saturday
Tributes have been left outside the Motorpoint Arena
So far, it has already sparked a police investigation, a closely watched coroner’s inquest and a virulent and, at times, appallingly racist social-media storm. Also gathering pace is a debate over the safety and culture of this fast and highly physical contact sport.
The incident plays out as follows : first, as Johnson makes his way into Sheffield territory, defender Matt Petgrave approaches at speed from his right and turns sharply into his path. Then, at a crucial moment, Nottingham player Otto Nieminen gets in the way.
In the split-second that follows, Petgrave appears to drop his shoulder in anticipation of a collision. But something — possibly making contact with Nieminen’s boot — throws him off balance. That, in turn, propels his left foot a considerable distance into the air.
Johnson, a 29-year-old American, has simultaneously cut inside towards the Nottingham goal. By a terrible coincidence, this brings him directly into Petgrave’s path. The razor-sharp blade of the Sheffield player’s skate then makes contact with his unguarded throat at high speed and both players fall to the ice.
Johnson then attempts to stand, falls over again and is helped to his feet by the referee. As they make their way slowly off the rink, a huge pool of blood becomes visible on the ice. To the horror of the crowd, a second patch then begins to spread across Johnson’s white shirt. Moments later, he collapses.
Team-mates quickly attempt to stem the bleeding using towels, gloves and their bare hands. When paramedics arrive, the players form a protective ring around him to shield him from fans — who are told the arena must be evacuated due to a major medical emergency.
An ambulance, which is called at 8.21pm, whisks him to the city’s Northern General Hospital. Though a pulse briefly returns during the journey, Johnson has lost too much blood to survive and is pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
The awful development was confirmed in a statement from the Nottingham Panthers the next day. The club said it was ‘truly devastated to announce that Adam Johnson has tragically passed away following a freak accident at the game in Sheffield last night’. His friends and family then issued tributes. Johnson’s mother, Sue, wrote on Facebook: ‘I lost half of my heart today. Love you always Munch.’
His girlfriend Ryan Wolfe, who moved to the UK with him this year and had to identify his body at the hospital, shared a photo on Instagram: ‘My sweet, sweet angel. I’ll miss you for ever and love you always.’
Yet, as the shock and sorrow subsided, a fractious debate began to play out on social media. At its centre were a collection of short video clips of the fatal collision, some of them slowed down and zoomed in, and widely shared on YouTube, TikTok and X/Twitter.
The razor-sharp blade Petgrave’s skate then made contact with his unguarded throat at high speed and both players fall to the ice
Adam Johnson and Ryan Wolfe (pictured together) had been due to become engaged
For a small but vociferous minority of viewers, the footage raised an awkward question. Namely, was the contact between Matt Petgrave and Adam Johnson in some way deliberate? In other words, was the death of this young athlete less a freak accident, and more the tragic outcome of a reckless challenge in an intrinsically dangerous sport?
Among those who appear to think there is a case to answer is high-profile former ice hockey professional Sean Avery, who played for more than a decade in America’s prestigious National Hockey League (NHL) before retiring in 2012.
In an explosive interview on U.S. channel Fox News on Tuesday, host Jesse Watters described the incident as ‘murder on ice’ and said it ‘looks like homicide’.
Avery responded: ‘That’s a pretty dangerous word to be throwing around. I’ve watched it. It’s terrible. It’s tough to watch.
‘Did this kid make a movement that was very unorthodox? Do I think that he was trying to make contact of some sort? Absolutely! Do I think he woke up and said, “I’m going to murder somebody today”? No.’
Another Canadian ex-professional, Chris Therien, later wrote on X: ‘I was literally appalled and sickened by what I saw. It looked intentional. It was a kung-fu kick. My eyes are not lying. Tell me I’m wrong.’
Equally outraged was Adam’s aunt, Kari Johnson, who spoke to reporters from her home in Kelly Lake, Minnesota. She described the challenge as ‘very reckless’, adding: ‘We are absolutely calling for a complete investigation. You don’t take your leg and kick somebody and cut their throat.
‘I’m sorry. My nephew was 6ft tall, and whether you lost your balance or not, to have that leg come up that high and do a kicking motion like he did, that is just unacceptable.’
A memorial for Ice Hockey player Adam Johnson outside the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham
A message board with a tribute to Nottingham Panthers’ ice hockey player Adam Johnson outside the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham, the home of the Panthers
Before the Pittsburgh Penguins’s game against the Anaheim Ducks last night, both teams joined together for a tribute to Mr Johnson, who appeared in 13 NHL games with the Penguins
Teammates of Adam Johnson lay flowers outside the Motor Point arena in Nottingham
Their criticisms have been lent some weight by the fact the 6ft 2in Petgrave is a highly physical and aggressive player. Though such traits are not unusual in an ice hockey ‘defenceman’, his tendency to commit fouls meant he was the single most penalised player in Britain’s professional league last season. During 54 matches, Petgrave served 129 ‘penalty minutes’ under the discipline system that sees players sent off for periods of two minutes or more, depending on the seriousness of their infraction.
Among the offences for which he was penalised were ‘high sticking’, ‘spearing’ (jabbing an opponent with your stick in the stomach or legs), ‘abuse of an official’ and ‘roughing’ (the term given to fighting).
At one point, Sheffield’s coach Aaron Fox was asked by reporters whether Petgrave had a problem with ill-discipline. Fox claimed the player was the victim of ‘very, very soft calls’ by officials, but admitted he sometimes needs to ‘tone it down’.
It should be stressed that the majority of experts and professional players, including many of those who were present on Saturday, are adamant Petgrave is a physical rather than a dirty player, and have strongly argued that during Saturday’s incident he did nothing wrong.
Among them is Westin Michaud, one of Johnson’s teammates, who said the Panthers team ‘wholeheartedly stand with Petgrave’, adding that an ‘unintentional clip’ of Nieminen’s leg had caused him to ‘somersault’. Michaud said: ‘It’s clear his actions were unintentional and anyone suggesting otherwise is mistaken.’
Another Nottingham Panthers player, Victor Bjorkung, told Expressen, a newspaper in his native Sweden: ‘No one in our team thinks it’s his fault, quite the opposite. We are a big family and he can contact us if he needs it. I was a couple of metres away, so if anyone experienced it as it really was, then it was me.’
Crucially, Nieminen also urged fans not to ‘blame the player for a freak accident’.
Johnson was also honoured ahead of the game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night
The incident happened at Utilita Arena Sheffield (pictured) and is believed to have been witnessed by around 8,000 fans
Fans in tears outside the Motor Point arena in Nottingham after the death of Mr Johnson
Many expert viewers also point out that the fatal collision occurred in a fraction of a second, arguing such events always look far worse when footage is slowed down.
It has also been suggested that Petgrave may have been upended because he lost his balance while trying to use his left foot to trip Nieminen. While that would be against the rules, it would also mean he did not intentionally elevate his skate to the dangerous height that led to the tragedy.
Picking their way through this debate are South Yorkshire Police, who have launched an investigation in conjunction with Sheffield’s Health and Safety authorities and will be informing the coroner. An inquest, which opened yesterday, was adjourned until January.
In a statement, the force said: ‘Detectives have been carrying out a range of inquiries including reviewing footage, talking to witnesses and seeking the advice and support of highly specialised experts to seek to understand the circumstances surrounding what happened. Our officers have now left the scene, however, due to the complex nature of this tragic and unprecedented incident, it is likely the wider investigation will take some time.’
Where the investigation will lead is anyone’s guess, though it’s worth noting that prosecutions for incidents which occur during sports events are extremely rare.
Perhaps the most famous case involved Glasgow Rangers footballer Duncan Ferguson, who served a three-month jail term for assault after headbutting Raith Rovers defender Jock McStay in the mid-1990s. However, that case was prosecuted under the Scottish legal system. In England and Wales, a potentially important precedent involves Mark Barnes, an amateur footballer found guilty in 2004 of grievous bodily harm for performing a high sliding tackle. He successfully appealed the conviction, maintaining the injury to his opponent’s leg was accidental.
Nicola Lacey, professor of law, gender and social policy at the London School of Economics, told U.S. magazine Newsweek that precedent makes it ‘highly unlikely’ the Crown Prosecution Service would choose to prosecute Petgrave over Saturday’s incident.
‘For manslaughter you need either gross negligence — a really large departure from normal standards of care such as to justify criminal liability; or an unlawful and dangerous act — the latter only likely if, for example, there had been a pretty flagrant breach of the sport’s rules,’ she said.
Matt Petgrave, 31, pictured, was the joint lead scorer for the northern side and the skating community has rallied around the Canadian in sympathy.
Right-wing troll accounts characterised Johnson’s death as a racially motivated attack on a white man by a black assailant.
‘If it was really a “freak accident”, neither of those tests would be met; and the CPS can only prosecute where there is a realistic chance of conviction.’
Adding an ugly note to the whole thing, on the American side of the Atlantic, at least, is the issue of race. Petgrave, who describes his heritage as ‘quite the mix’ — including ‘Congolese, Senegal. My mum is from the States, my dad is Jamaican’ — is one of few players of colour in professional ice hockey.
Shortly after arriving at Sheffield, he gave an interview to the local newspaper in which he revealed he’d been the subject of racial abuse at his previous club in Slovakia and over the years he’s been unafraid to speak up on social justice issues.
That has perhaps contributed to an outpouring of sinister abuse in some darker corners of the internet, with Right-wing troll accounts characterising Johnson’s death as a racially motivated attack on a white man by a black assailant.
Dave Simms, a spokesperson for Sheffield Steelers, stressed that the club ‘will not stand for’ such remarks, adding: ‘We have already blocked 350 accounts on X in the last 24 hours and a large number on Instagram.’
Elsewhere, the tragedy is sparking vigorous debate about player safety in a traditionally macho sport, once renowned for its combative nature. Gordie Howe, the NHL’s most influential player of the 60s and 70s, was famed for the ‘Gordie Howe hat-trick’, which involved scoring a goal, setting up a second one via an ‘assist’, and starting a fight in the course of a single game. A recent Canadian study claimed 44.3 per cent of all traumatic brain injuries in children in the country resulted from ice hockey and, since 2010, at least five professional ice hockey players have died during matches.
Perhaps, understandably, ice hockey’s authorities have this week come under pressure to mandate ‘neck protectors’, a form of guard typically made from Kevlar, and resembling a turtle-neck jumper, for all players.
Yet, while junior leagues generally insist on their use, many professional players have been resistant, saying they restrict movement and, in a competitive environment so physically demanding that they often change undershirts four times per game, too hot to be practical.
Whether that line can hold in the wake of Adam Johnson’s death is unclear. For no matter who, if anyone, is to blame for the events in Sheffield last Saturday, the sport can ill afford another tragedy on ice.