Adam Johnson’s Death Provides a Sobering Reminder of Hockey’s Danger

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Members of the Anaheim Ducks and the Pittsburgh Penguins stand at center ice for a moment of silence at the PPG Paints Arena to honor former Penguin forward Adam Johnson (on scoreboard) who was tragically killed in a hockey related accident in Europe. Mandatory

Adam Johnson died in a freak ice hockey accident Saturday night in England, and the loss of the 29-year-old forward was keenly felt by players and fans who know all too well the dangers presented by the sport.

Johnson, who was playing for the Nottingham Panthers, died after he was cut in the throat by the skate blade of a Sheffield Steelers player during an Elite Ice Hockey League game at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena. He fell to the ice and rose briefly before collapsing. He received immediate treatment and CPR as fans looked on in horror. The arena was cleared, and he later died at a hospital.

Johnson, a Hibbing, Minn., native, played for Coach Scott Sandelin at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and the team was preparing to play Cornell when news came of Johnson’s injury and then death. “It was hard on everybody. It’s an unexpected, freaky thing,” Sandelin told Minnesota’s Mesabi Tribune. “With his parents Davey and Sue flying over there, I can’t even imagine that. It’s heart wrenching. . . . You try to put that stuff aside for a couple of hours, then it starts to hit home. It gets emotional. You don’t want anybody to go through that. We feel for the whole family. It’s so sad and tough to grasp.”

Johnson is also survived by his fiancée, Ryan Wolfe, who wrote in an Instagram story: “I’ll miss you forever and love you always.”

In a news conference Monday, Sandelin grew emotional as he described Johnson as “a tremendous kid [who was] a pleasure to coach” and “made a big impact in his two years here.”

Sandelin also addressed how dangerous the sport is.

“There’s risks in the game and it’s scary,” he said. “. . . Riley Tufte [a former UMD teammate of Johnson] said he was thinking about it – they’re all thinking about it. I don’t care if it’s a cut on the arm or what happened to Adam. . . . you do address it. If it’s not in your head and your thought process, I don’t think you’re human.”

From time to time, there are calls for hockey players to wear neck guards, and on Monday, the English Ice Hockey Association announced they will become mandatory on Dec. 31 (until then, the EIHA has imposed a “strong recommendation” that they be used).

In the long history of the NHL, there have been two notable cases of a player’s neck being slashed by a skate. Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk had perhaps the scariest injury, with his jugular cut in 1989. The carotid of Florida Panthers winger Richard Zednik was slashed in 2008, but he quickly applied pressure and skated off. Both survived, but their careers and lives were altered.

Tufte, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, told the Athletic Saturday he is surprised that slashing incidents aren’t more common in the fast-paced sport.

“I think any hockey player never wants to see anybody go through this type of terrible injury, and honestly, I’m not afraid to say it, when I show up for [Sunday’s] game and put the skates on, I’m going to be thinking about what happened,” Tufte said. “It’s going to take a while for that to probably go away and to play free out there, especially this happening to a buddy that you know.

“It’s just a freak accident and absolutely awful and nobody ever wants to see that. But, yeah, you got it in the back of your head, ‘Do I wear a neck guard now?’ I don’t know. Maybe guys will start wearing them now.”

Tufte recalled that Will Borgen of the Seattle Kraken bears a scar on his neck as a reminder of how close a skate came to his carotid artery when he was playing in a high school hockey camp.

“This probably happens a lot more in hockey than we know, but nobody ever hears about it unless it happens at the pro level,” Tufte said. “I don’t know. All I can tell you is this is devastating for all of us. Johns is such a great, great person, a great human being.”

But there’s always another game to play, for Tufte Sunday and Minnesota-Duluth, whose players had to play a game Saturday “with a heavy heart. It puts things into perspective,” Sandelin said, “but we had a job to do and . . . the game takes your mind off that for a while.”

The time “before and after” was difficult and the result was “inconsequential,” he added, but the hockey community helped. “Hockey is unique in that you see the outpouring from everybody,” he said. “. . . It’s on everybody’s radar. That helps you get through it, too.”

At Minnesota-Duluth, Johnson helped the Bulldogs reach two NCAA Tournaments and scored an overtime game-winner against Boston University in the 2017 tournament, sending Minnesota-Duluth to the Frozen Four. Sandelin coached Johnson for only two years and said he wished he’d had another year with him. “I remember his little smile, his wit, just the impact he had on his teammates – they all loved him.”