After former NHL player Adam Johnson passed away in the wake of his neck being cut by a skate blade while he was playing for the Nottingham Panthers in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League late last month, debate quickly started over the responsibility for his death. The league called it a “freak accident” in their statement on Johnson’s death, and many agreed with that, but some others (including former NHLer Chris Therien) claimed it “looked intentional” and called for an investigation. Well, the Sheffield (where the game in question took place) police investigated, and that led to an arrest on suspicion of manslaughter Tuesday, although the suspect was later released on bail:
Police in England have arrested a man on manslaughter charges in the death of a former NHL player Adam Johnson, who died after a hockey skate left him with a catastrophic cut to his neck during a game. @KellyCobiella reports. pic.twitter.com/eb7gKpdxzW
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) November 15, 2023
Here’s more on that from the accompanying Today article by Anna Kaplan:
South Yorkshire Police said an arrest had been made on Nov. 14, but officials did not identify the man who had been arrested. No charges have been filed in the case.
“Our investigation launched immediately following this tragedy and we have been carrying out extensive enquiries ever since to piece together the events which led to the loss of Adam in these unprecedented circumstances,” South Yorkshire Detective Chief Superintendent Becs Horsfall said in a statement.
Horsfall added police have been speaking to “highly specialized experts in their field to assist” in the investigation after Johnson’s death “sent shockwaves” throughout the community.
As that article notes, a manslaughter charge does not necessarily imply intention to kill. The distinction typically (although not always) drawn between manslaughter and murder is murder coming with malice aforethought. But there are different levels of manslaughter, particularly voluntary (with intention, but in the moment) and involuntary (without intent through a lack of care, an unlawful and dangerous act, or other circumstances), and each of those breaks down into further categories, and this all varies depending on jurisdiction. The particular English laws on manslaughter are discussed here.
It’s rare to prosecute an athlete criminally for actions on the field of play, but there have been some past attempts to do so. In hockey, Giacinto “Jim” Boni was charged with culpable homicide after slashing Miran Schrott in the chest during an Italian league game in 1992; Schrott died of a cardiac event, and Boni pled guilty to manslaughter. NHLers Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi were both criminally charged with assault for on-ice actions as well (in 2000 and 2004 respectively), with McSorley receiving 18 months of probation and Bertuzzi pleading guilty and receiving a year of probation, plus community service.
The debate over Johnson’s death being “a freak accident” or something worthy of criminal investigation and charges seems likely to continue. But it’s certainly notable to see an arrest here, and we’ll see how the criminal process plays out. Meanwhile, Johnson’s passing is still being felt by the hockey community in England, in his home state of Minnesota, and beyond. And his passing has also led to calls for neck guards, which the EIHL has said they “strongly encourage” all players to wear in the wake of this death.