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On Ice Tragedy Sparks Conversation About Player Safety At All Levels

By Reilly Murphy

As sports fans, we never forget certain moments either because of how glorious or how haunting they seem. It is rare in sports that something is unforgettable for being so tragic, disastrous, or traumatizing. As humans, we never forget our emotions and how an event can make us feel in a moment.

On October 28, midway through the second period of an Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) game between the Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers, Panther’s, forward Adam Johnson was tragically killed following a collision in which an opponent’s skate came up and slit Johnson’s throat. Johnson, 29 years old, rose up from the ice in search of immediate help following the incident as blood surged from his neck, but was quickly stopped once by teammates and officials, as trainers and doctors rushed to Johnson for emergency assistance.

Players circled around the scene before screens were raised around Johnson, and then was immediately transported to Sheffield General Hospital. Soon after the Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers came out with the following statement as spectators had “been asked to leave the building due to a major medical emergency”.

Johnson’s aunt Kari Johnson, who was in attendance that night, confirmed the news of his passing in an emotional statement: “I lost half of my heart today. Love you always Munch.”

A statement from the Panthers on Sunday read: “The Nottingham Panthers are truly devastated to announce that Adam Johnson has tragically passed away following a freak accident at the game in Sheffield last night. The Panthers would like to send our thoughts and condolences to Adam’s family, his partner, and all his friends at this extremely difficult time. Everyone at the club including players, staff, management, and ownership was heartbroken at the news of Adam’s passing.”

The tragedy has sparked a conversation on throat protection at all levels of hockey.

Since the fatal accident, the National Hockey League (NHL)  has now had a visible presence in players wearing throat protection, including league stars T.J. Oshie, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Neal Pionk, a former friend of Johnson. In addition to other NHLers wearing them, Oshie is hoping the next generation of players will follow him.

“I’d hope it shows [youth] that it’s really not a distraction from my game,” Oshie said. “I thought I played pretty decent tonight, honestly. It was actually really comfortable. … I didn’t even notice it after one shift tonight.”

In just days following the incident, multiple leagues have since come out and made throat proctors a mandated piece of equipment. The English Ice Hockey Association (EIHA) has made them mandatory starting in the 2024-25 season.

“Undoubtedly, this moment in time casts a sombre shadow upon our global sporting community, serving as a stark reminder of our collective responsibilities as custodians of the sport,” the EIHA said in a statement. “As in all sports, the safety of our players must take precedence above all else. We are firmly committed to our obligation to exhaust every possible means to ensure that a tragic incident of this nature never befalls our sport again.”

In North America, the Western Hockey League (WHL) announced they are making it mandatory in the near future,  while the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins have each made it mandatory throughout their minor league systems.

“The WHL anticipates challenges in delivery of protective neck guard equipment from licensed suppliers due to increased demand following the tragic passing of Adam Johnson,” the league said in a statement.

As for hockey at the NCAA level? There has yet to be any immediate action being taken by the NCAA, despite Johnson having played at Minnesota-Duluth from 2015-2017. When talking with members of the Merrimack Hockey staff, they, amongst other schools, are making them available for players to have access to neck guards. The problem now is finding them immediately, as demand has since spiked.

“ I would hate for something to happen to one of our players, especially if we didn’t allow them access to the equipment they needed in order to be safer,” Merrimack Hockey head coach Scott Borek said.

Dramatic changes seem to be on the horizon when it comes to player safety across the hockey world. As a result of this incident, hockey culture will see changes in what becomes the norm with its players.