Adam Johnson’s UK team retires his jersey number after the former Penguins player’s skate-cut death


The Nottingham Panthers and their fans honored Adam Johnson. They healed a little, too.

Players cracked smiles and fans chanted songs after goals at a memorial game for Johnson, the former Pittsburgh Penguin who died after an opposing player’s skate cut his neck during a game last month.

“Every moment helps us move forward — the goal songs, all of it,” assistant coach Kevin Moore said. “His family was on our minds and he was on our minds. We think about him every day.”

The English hockey team retired Johnson’s No. 47 jersey on Saturday.

Panthers players also wore neck protection. It was their first game since Johnson’s death in Sheffield on Oct. 28. Days later, the Elite Ice Hockey League said it “strongly encourages” players to wear neck guards. The team would not comment on them, however.

The Panthers announced the jersey retirement moments before the start of their game against the Manchester Storm as players from both teams stood in a circle at center ice at Motorpoint Arena.

The death of the 29-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins player has not only forced the sport to reexamine safety regulations but also sparked a criminal investigation locally that led to an arrest of a man on suspicion of manslaughter.

The game, which was broadcast free on YouTube, does not count in the standings. Instead, it was meant to bring players and fans together as they try to move forward.

Outside the downtown arena, there’s a makeshift shrine where fans have left flowers, wreaths, jerseys, team scarves and handwritten notes to honor Johnson.

“He was genuinely a really lovely guy,” said fan Kirsty Charles, who had met Johnson on a couple of occasions. “It’s important that people back at home know how well thought of he was (here). He would stop for any kid to have a photo. He was never off, never full of himself or anything like that.”

Charles was at the game in Sheffield and, fighting back tears, described the scene as “absolutely heartbreaking. It was just awful.”

Saturday’s game — a low-intensity affair with no checking — ended in a 4-4 tie, but the home fans were able to celebrate four times with the goal song “Chelsea Dagger.”

Panthers players received a standing ovation when they came out for warmups and some waved and chatted with fans between shots.

“The support we’ve gotten since the past few weeks has been unbelievable,” defenseman Carl Neill told the crowd after the game. “We’re grateful for each and every one of you. We know it’s going to be a tough process getting back to normalcy, whatever that might be, but with you guys behind us we know we (can) do this all together.”

Nottingham’s coaching staff stood arm-in-arm on the bench as players and fans looked up to the scoreboard to watch highlights of Johnson’s career. Storm players wore specially designed white jerseys with the number 47 in a circle on the front. The Panthers wore black and also had a 47 on the front.

In the third period, play stopped in the 47th minute for a minute of applause by the 10,000 fans at the sold-out venue. Coaches, players and the officials also clapped.

The Penguins have also honored Johnson since his death, wearing “AJ 47” decals on their helmets for their Oct. 30 game and asking fans to stand and cheer for him. Coach Mike Sullivan remembered Johnson as “a great kid,” saying, “It was a privilege to be his coach.” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Johnson’s death is “something that we’ve all been thinking about.” 

A postmortem examination confirmed Johnson died as a result of a neck injury. South Yorkshire Police did not identify the suspect or provide his age. He was arrested Tuesday and released on bail a day later.

Matt Petgrave, a defenseman for the Sheffield Steelers, was the other player involved in the incident. Johnson had skated with the puck across the blue line — into Sheffield’s defensive zone — when Petgrave collided with another Panthers player nearby. Petgrave’s left skate kicked up as he began to fall and the blade hit Johnson in the neck.

Neither the Steelers nor the league has provided an update on Petgrave’s roster status. His agent declined to comment when reached by The Associated Press earlier this week.

“Everybody’s dealing with it in their own way, some are being negative. The majority of us are trying to be positive,” Panthers fan Margaret Cartwright said. “It was just a really, really unfortunate accident. The poor guy that caused it has got to live with that for the rest of life. I think that should be punishment enough. Nobody would do that deliberately — nobody. It’s just how it happened, in a split second something went wrong and unfortunately, we lost poor Adam.”

The Minnesota native was in his first season at Nottingham — a central England city known as home to Robin Hood — after stints in Germany and a handful of games for the Penguins in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. He was living in Nottingham with his American girlfriend.

The English Ice Hockey Association, which governs the sport below the Elite League, reacted to Johnson’s death by requiring all players in England to wear neck guards from the start of 2024. The Pittsburgh Penguins mandated minor league players wear neck and wrist guards after Johnson’s death. 

The game in Sheffield was part of the league’s Challenge Cup — like soccer’s FA Cup tournament in Britain — but the Panthers have since withdrawn from that competition. They will resume their season against the Belfast Giants on Nov. 26.

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