100 days of agony: IAN HERBERT on how ice hockey has been haunted by the death of Adam Johnson – and why it can’t move on

A slate grey sky above Nottingham, a trace of rain and, at the city’s ice rink this week, a reminder that grief is a long, drawn-out business, remorselessly bleak when time has elapsed and the rest of the world is busy getting on with life.

It’s 100 days since Adam Johnson, a member of the Nottingham Panthers ice hockey team, died of injuries sustained in an incident on the rink against Sheffield Steelers and a floral shrine created in the immediate aftermath has given way to a more modest, permanent reminder. It’s a smart plaque, fixed to the rink’s exterior wall last week, bearing the young American’s name and shirt number. ‘Forever our 47.’

You only needed to have tracked the Panthers’ progress in the ten weeks or so since they returned to competition to sense the effect that 24-year-old Johnson’s death has had on a team who must now have very different perspective on the significance of sport.

The Panthers are accustomed to being in the upper reaches of British ice hockey’s Elite League. They were runners’ up three years ago, have finished fourth in the past two seasons and had started this season on another high, with six straight wins in October. 

Since Johnson’s death, they have lost 20 of their 24 fixtures. The Christmas ‘derby’ matches home and away against the Steelers are generally the league’s most keenly anticipated. Nottingham lost the first, on their own rink, 5-1 on Boxing Day and lost 5-0 in South Yorkshire the following day. They are bottom of the table. Steelers are top.

Wednesday marks 100 days since ice hockey star Adam Johnson tragically died on the ice

The American died of injuries sustained in an incident on the rink against Sheffield Steelers. Johnson is pictured starring for Pittsburgh Penguins against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019

The American died of injuries sustained in an incident on the rink against Sheffield Steelers. Johnson is pictured starring for Pittsburgh Penguins against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019

Perhaps it’s the years of immersion in a football culture which create an expectation of negativity in Nottingham towards the Steelers and their Canadian player, Matt Petgrave, whose blade connected so horrifically with Johnson’s neck. There is none to be found, though. Ice hockey does not appear to consider this tragedy to be something for which guilt must be apportioned. ‘What can I say to you?’ says a mother buying Panthers tickets for her children. ‘We were there that night and it will always be with us. Every time we see a game. That’s all.’

It was Matt Petgrave’s blade that horrifically and fatally caught Johnson’s neck on the ice

In the broader ice hockey community, others have something more robust to say about one of the possible consequences of the challenge that took Johnson’s life. In November, South Yorkshire Police arrested and bailed a man, whom they have not named, on suspicion of manslaughter as part of their investigation into the incident. The prospect of a criminal charge hangs heavy across the sport.

An investigation of inviolable rigour is necessary, of course. It’s the least Johnson’s family are owed. But a charge of what would be ‘involuntary manslaughter’ – an unlawful killing in which there is no intention to kill or to cause grievous bodily harm – would, one former coach tells me, be ‘a policing of our game which would change every player’s approach to it. You have to ask where does that lead for us? You would face the same consequences every time you stepped onto a rink with competitive intent.’

The grainy footage of the incident which took Johnson’s life, now shared millions of times, is unremittingly grim when viewed in hindsight and in the full knowledge of what is about to come. Johnson advances down the left of the rink, with the puck. Petgrave moves rapidly to intercept. Another Panthers player cuts across his path. Petgrave seems to tumble forwards, left heel high. As he falls, Johnson moves into his path.

Some of those I have spoken to take a dim view of the moment that took Johnson’s life. One vastly experienced former player sees a departure from the most sacrosanct rule, embedded in ice hockey culture – that all players must have control of their skates. 

A floral shrine was created in the immediate aftermath as a modest, permanent reminder

A floral shrine was created in the immediate aftermath as a modest, permanent reminder

Lawyers are reluctant to discuss the incident, with that police investigation ongoing, but the test for criminal liability is, of necessity, extremely high. Wearing deliberately extra sharpened boots, or purposefully attempting to inflict injury might meet the test, one legal expert suggests. It’s been hard to see any such pre-calculation.

There is little legal precedent to help us with this, though the case of a Kent amateur footballer convicted in 2003 of grievous bodily harm after snapping an opponent’s leg may be significant. The Court of Appeal overturned the conviction on the grounds that in competing, you are accepting an element of risk that you might be injured. ‘It is surprising that there is so little authoritative guidance from appellate courts as to the legal position in this situation,’ the Appeal Court judges wrote in that case. Indeed so.. But why, 100 days on, is an individual still be waiting to see if he is going to be charged with manslaughter and face possible jail?

The mother at the Nottingham ice rink expresses a wish that players might now become better protected, though that is taking time. While all the players competing when Nottingham’s Panthers met Coventry Blaze before Christmas were wearing neck protectors, that protective equipment is still not mandatory in the division, 100 days on. Nor in the US’s NHL, where just two or three players from Johnson’s old team, Pittsburgh Penguins, were wearing protectors in one recent game. They, of all teams, might have set an example.

Taking the lesson and heeding the warning from that night of unspeakable horror in Nottingham is what matters most, not apportioning some kind of criminal guilt. If those still poring over events can come to see that, then there would be a crumb of comfort to take.

‘Forever our 47': The flowers are also accompanied by a host of other tributes to the player

‘Forever our 47′: The flowers are also accompanied by a host of other tributes to the player

We’re losing all the euphoria 

A friend sent me the audio of Everton’s second equaliser against Tottenham after last weekend’s game at Goodison. Hard to convey in a space like this, the absolute euphoria expressed by Everton’s own in-house commentator, Darren Griffiths – save to say it was sublime. Hard not to smile when playing it back, either, which I’ve now done several times. 

Another friend, on the Gwladys Street with his father that Saturday afternoon, told me how that goal felt from his own, very different perspective. ‘Injury-time equaliser!’ he messaged back to say. ‘Yet impossible to fully lose yourself in the moment because of the VAR check.’ 

All that is spontaneous is being inexorably stripped away from football – even at Everton, where the Premier League’s apparent desire to strip the club of every point they accumulate seems to know no limit. 

So, if Arsenal, or anyone else, wish to celebrate to the high heavens, then let them do so all day long. And then some more. Because the lumpen rule-makers, with their red lines and monitors, are bleeding the game of its soul. 

There was nothing wrong with Martin Odegaard's joyous celebrations after beating Liverpool

There was nothing wrong with Martin Odegaard’s joyous celebrations after beating Liverpool

Those criticising Mikel Arteta and Arsenal for celebrating are bleeding the soul out of the game

Those criticising Mikel Arteta and Arsenal for celebrating are bleeding the soul out of the game

Six Nations is sport with soul 

I measured out the glories of a divine few days in Marseille, watching Ireland open the Six Nations up against France. There was the half-hour or so in the presence of an Irish coach and captain, Andy Farrell and Peter O’Mahony who spoke to those of us sitting before us in the press room as equals, rather than attempt to demonstrate how very cool and clever they were. 

There was the azure blue Marseille sky and the first knockings of Spring. There were the two- stadium anthems, sung with such monumental fervour that it almost took the roof off that place. 

And, above all, there was the sight of the respect nations’ fans, sitting unsegregated, side-by-side, in the stadium and drinking, side-by-side, in the bars when all was said and done, and Ireland had triumphed. The Six Nations. How incredibly good for the soul. 

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