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Police in the U.K. made an arrest after a fatal hockey incident


Some level of danger is baked into hockey, right? It's a physical game, and even hits within the rules cause injuries. But what happens when an on-ice collision ends in death? What's the line between a horrible accident and a criminal act? Well, that's what investigators in the United Kingdom are sorting out after a terrible incident at a professional hockey game. It led to an arrest this week, and ESPN's Ryan S. Clark is here to speak with us about it. Welcome.

RYAN S CLARK: Hey. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So without getting too, too graphic, can you just walk us through what happened and the immediate aftermath?

CLARK: Sure. Adam Johnson, who used to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was playing for the Nottingham Panthers in a game against the Sheffield Steelers in late October when he collided with an opponent. An opponent's skate blade cut Johnson's neck, and he shortly passed away thereafter. And in the wake of Adam Johnson's death, there have been conversations throughout multiple leagues throughout the world, including the NHL, minor leagues like the AHL, ECHL, junior leagues, as well as the Elite Ice Hockey League, the league that Adam Johnson played in...

CHANG: Yeah.

CLARK: ...About safety precautions and what can be done.

CHANG: Right. And what do we know about the arrest that was made this week?

CLARK: So right now the latest is this. A man was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter - and because of Adam Johnson's death. A post-mortem examination show that it was a fatal neck injury. South Yorkshire Police didn't release the name of the suspect or provide his age. But Matt Petgrave, who plays for Sheffield, was the other player who was involved in the incident.

CHANG: Right. Well, what have people in the league been saying about the incident, like the coaches and the players? Do they think that this whole thing was an accident?

CLARK: To talk to people, there's the understanding that this is an accident and that this is something that in a sport like hockey, not necessarily quite something like this, but skate accidents can happen. They happened with Clint Malarchuk, a former goalie, more than 30 years ago. Evander Kane, a forward for the Edmonton Oilers, he had a wrist cut last year. It happened even in a Connecticut high school game not that long ago. So there is the understanding that this is a freak accident. It doesn't happen often, but they do happen.

CHANG: Right. Well, Matt Petgrave, the player who was involved in the injury, I mean, he is one of the relatively few Black players in pro hockey. He almost immediately faced an onslaught of racist backlash. Are you surprised by the kind of attention this whole tragedy has garnered?

CLARK: Hockey is currently going through a phase right now where it is grappling with all things diversity, whether it be race, LGBTQIA, as we've seen with pride tape over the last few weeks, Palestine, Israel. It's a league that - well, really sport, excuse me - that really hasn't been able to really deal into these subjects compared to other sports. So the fact that this conversation is happening when it's also a conversation about player safety, it's one of those things where at first you might not think of it, but now that it's happened and then it's a discussion, it's another example of how this is a continuing discussion within hockey.

CHANG: I mean, hockey players, they wear so much safety gear, right? Is there any equipment that could have prevented an injury like this to the neck?

CLARK: So there are neck guards, and it's something that the NHL and NHLPA are talking about doing. And you've seen other leagues implement them. But beyond neck guards, there are skate-resistant - well, excuse me - cut-resistant and skate-resistant sleeves as well as socks.

CHANG: That is Ryan S. Clark, hockey writer for ESPN. Thank you very much.

CLARK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fox
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.