With 6:16 remaining in the second period of a professional hockey game in England, Adam Johnson of the Nottingham Panthers slipped past the blue line and toward the Sheffield net.
Carrying the puck, he tried to cut down the blue line and into open ice. As he did, he drew the attention of Sheffield’s Matt Petgrave who was originally back checking Johnson’s teammate, Otto Nieminen.
It was there everyone’s worst hockey nightmare occurred.
As Johnson was about to get into open ice, using Petgrave and Nieminen as a sort of pick, Petgrave threw his left leg out, apparently to check, trip or slow progress. Instead Petgrave’s skate flew high, with the blade slicing across Johnson’s neck.
Video of the tragic play can be seen here.
Johnson fell immediately to the ice before being helped off by Nieminen, who tried to hold his glove on Johnson's neck to prevent blood loss. It was to no avail. Despite the presence of medical professionals, the 29-year-old from Minnesota was pronounced dead at an area hospital.
A death resulting in on-ice play is exceedingly rare in a sport that is played at all levels in dozens of countries around the globe. In the past two decades at the international professional level, there have been just a handful of incidents, mostly injuries from being hit in the head with the puck.
This is the most notable throat slashing since goaltender Clint Malachuk of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres was cut in 1989. In 2008, Florida winger Richard Zednik was also cut. Both survived.
The incident was undoubtedly tragic.
The question some fans have raised on social media is, given the nature of the skate getting so high in the air, if there is a criminal element at play here?
The South Yorkshire Police, in a statement, said they were called to the arena immediately and began an investigation that continues.
“Our officers remain[ed] at the scene carrying out enquiries [Sunday] and our investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident remain ongoing,’” the police stated.
Despite the complaints of some, in the United States at least, the possibility that this rose to a chargeable offense rests almost solely on providing Petgrave’s intent in the moment before the incident, according to Craig Mordock, a criminal defense attorney who regularly handles violent crime in New Orleans.
“[Petgrave] does look like he thrusts his leg and skate,” Mordock said. “It does look like he kicks at Johnson, but did he knowingly try to injure Johnson? It would all go to intent. The intent to injure. That would be very difficult to prove unless there were comments on the ice or before the game about wanting to ‘get’ the guy.
"Intent can be formed in an instant, but this play is happening very quickly.”
Essentially, the incident occurred in the course of a game and was, at least at some level, a natural hockey play.
There is “an assumption of risk” to anyone who steps onto the ice that would play into the decision to charge someone.
For instance, if a player shoots a puck during a game and it hits and injures another player who is standing in front of the net, that is one thing. If a player went out onto the street and shot a puck into a crowd, it would be different. The fact it occurred during a game matters.
Even if Petgrave was risking a penalty by the rules of the game by sticking out his leg or raising his leg, it likely wouldn’t rise to the level of a chargeable offense unless “they could prove beyond doubt that his intent was for his skate to injure [Johnson],” Mordock said.
The NHL has seen a few players criminally charged with in-game behavior, but those were the result of naturally violent actions that wouldn't defensibly occur in the flow of competitive play.
In 2004, Todd Bertuzzi was charged (and pleaded guilty) to criminal assault causing bodily harm for grabbing the jersey of Steve Moore and punching Moore from behind. Bertuzzi received probation and community service and was sued civilly by Moore.
In 2000, Marty McSorley was charged (and later found guilty) with assault with a weapon for slashing Donald Bershear on the side of the head as Beshear skated away in open ice. McSorley was given probation. In 1988, Dino Ciccarelli was charged and later convicted of repeatedly hitting Luke Richardson in the head with his stick as Richardson tried to protect himself. Ciccarelli served one day in jail and paid a fine.
In those cases, the intent to injure was fairly clear. It may not be here.
British laws could be read and applied differently, of course, and the motivation of local authorities can vary. Petgrave’s movements were certainly not common or perhaps even game legal, but that doesn’t mean he wanted or could have reasonably expected the result that occurred.
For what it’s worth, Petgrave appeared immediately troubled after the incident.
Regardless, the police investigation continues with the expectation that this goes down as a horrible tragic accident, not anything more.
Johnson appeared in 13 games across two seasons (2018-20) for the Pittsburgh Penguins.