Remembering Adam Johnson

Mourning the player and analyzing the emerging neck guard conversation

On Oct. 28, former NHL player Adam Johnson died following a freak accident where an opposing player’s skate cut Johnson’s neck during an Elite Ice Hockey League game in Nottingham, U.K.

Johnson’s tragic death reminds us hockey fans the dangers that come along with the sport while highlighting the importance of protective gear at all levels. With Ferris State being one of the 64 universities with a NCAA DI men’s hockey team, I believe that the NCAA should mandate neck protection.

While the reactions to Johnson’s death have started a positive conversation for neck protection, there are also those who skew the conversation to a more sinister level. 

Matthew Petgrave, the player whose skate hit Johnson’s neck, is Black. Certain commentators, like self-proclaimed “nationalist” Lauren Witzke, referred to the accident as “anti-white terrorism.”

The need from this type of commentators to create a false narrative of a racially motivated, purposeful attack on Johnson is not only racist, irresponsible and unequivocally false, but it takes away from the only circumstances that matter: Johnson and how we move forward to make sure this never happens again.

Currently, the NCAA requires no neck protection for their athletes. However, with the current conversation around neck protection and with leagues and players adopting neck guards, this could and should change.

In response to Johnson’s death, the WHL, a Canadian junior league, mandated that players must wear neck protection. The move joins fellow junior leagues, the QMJHL and the OHL, in requiring neck protection.

While these changes are being made at the junior level, there are also professional league examples. The Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins and where Johnson spent most of his professional career, have mandated neck protection. The Penguins’ ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, have also been required to do the same.

I’ve already heard discussion around neck guards for the Bulldogs.

For Ferris hockey coach Bob Daniels, the importance of neck protection has never been more clear as the Bulldogs saw a skateblade incident the same weekend as Johnson’s accident.

“That same weekend, for us, [sophomore forward] Tyler Schleppe got his neck cut and took seven stitches,” Daniels said. “The goalie from Lindenwood caught a blade to the neck against the University of Michigan. It’s happening and I think we’d be negligent if we didn’t do everything we could to try to supply that equipment to the guys.”

Despite Daniels encouraging players to wear neck protection, he mentioned he would “stop short” of mandating neck protection, citing that he didn’t know enough about any medical or equipment “ramifications” from wearing the neck guards.

Skate blade accidents have been happening for years. Luckily, these incidents haven’t been as severe as Johnson’s. Boston Bruins player Jakob Lauko took a blade to the face on Oct. 24, Evander Kane took a blade to the wrist in 2022. There have even been accidents close to Johnson’s, like Clint Malarchuk in 1989 or in 2008 with Richard Zednick. Both players had their carotid arteries cut, but luckily survived.

The point is this: if it can happen in a small league like the EIHL and the largest league in the world, the NHL, it can happen at an NCAA level.

Reducing the risk of fatal injury within hockey and making sure we don’t repeat the past is crucial to remembering Johnson. We can make the sport safer for those who love to play it, people like Johnson.