Adam Johnson: silent rinks as hockey world unites in shock and grief at his death
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Coming in from a night out, I caught reports of fans being asked to leave the arena in Sheffield after a medical emergency. Within seconds, the full, distressing picture emerged on social media without a single image being posted online by any of the 8000 fans who were there. Not one. I didn’t need to see what happened. No-one did.
In a world where every flashpoint and talking point is filmed and uploaded to Twitter as it happens, it was the power and raw emotion of their words which captured a moment no-one could ever have imagined. Fans spoke of shielding their children’s view of the ice pad, of hugging each other in the concourse, of having to pause and take a moment, while, online, people shared links to support groups, and an offer to talk and, equally important, to listen. It was a remarkable, and moving, example of the hockey family uniting as one in the darkest of moments.
Many also didn’t name the player at the time, perhaps aware of his family thousands of miles away in North America may not have known instantly of the unfolding tragedy, or maybe simply out of respect. When players signal frantically for medical help, and form a shield around a colleague, you instinctively know something awful has happened. All you can do is sit, and hope. And pray.
The raw grief and shock that has immersed the sport will remain for some time. Ice hockey is a small world with intense rivalries but great connections between fan bases, and the bonds players forge across their careers can span countries and continents as they travel from North America to Europe and Scandinavia.
Johnson’s death will resonate with everyone who sits rinkside, and all who lace up every weekend, aware they are playing a game that is fast and physical; one that pushes the body to its limits and comes with risks, but never, ever this great.
His team mates from Hibbing High, Minnesota to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, to Pittsburgh Penguins and its affiliate team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, to Malmo Redhawks in Switzerland, to the Ontario Reign in Canada to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Pennsylvania and on to Aubsberger Panthers in Germany, will share the sense of loss and disbelief at his passing.
For his new team mates in Nottingham, it is impossible to comprehend the impact this will have not only on the dressing-room - a place that is a sanctuary for players - but across the whole organisation, from owners to volunteers rinkside and around the concourse. Many will have got to know him personally, everyone will have seen him skate in his #47 jersey; the same number he wore in the NHL.
That network will be closer, tighter than ever as we try to come to terms with a genuinely awful, unfathomable accident that claimed the life of a talented sportsman who had played at the very highest level, living the dream of every Canadian kid who ever picked up a hockey stick. To make it to the NHL - ‘the show’ - marks you out as something special, but what came across in Panthers’ tribute was that Johnson was also a much loved team mate and a genuinely great person.
Cancelling all EIHL games on Sunday – many more in the minor leagues followed suit – was the right call. The game we love can wait. It is entirely appropriate our rinks sat empty. A time to pause, to mourn and to remember. Resuming will be difficult enough.
For many, a hockey stick was also placed on the doorstep to honour a player who lost his life playing the greatest game in the world.