Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A memorial for Nottingham Panthers' Adam Johnson outside Motorpoint Arena, in Nottingham, Britain, on Nov. 4.ISABEL INFANTES/Reuters

Thirty-five years ago at Maple Leaf Gardens, Minnesota’s Dino Ciccarelli had a very bad night. He decided to take it out on Toronto’s Luke Richardson.

In the midst of a general scrum, Ciccarelli got some swinging room. He began hacking at Richardson with his stick. He got him across the side of the head, then the top, then the other side and finally with a butt end. Richardson wasn’t injured, but everyone on hand agreed it was too much.

Several people who’d been watching thought it was worse than that. They called Toronto police to report a crime. Ciccarelli was charged with assault. He was eventually convicted and ordered to serve one day in jail.

“It is time now that a message go out from the courts that violence in a hockey game or in any other circumstances is not acceptable in our society,” Judge Sidney Harris said as part of his decision.

Yet that violence continued unabated. If Ciccarelli was meant to serve as an example of the line, hockey players everywhere continued to cross it.

You could argue that a slew foot is even worse than a stick across the skull. Or that a can opener has more potential for harm than several closed-fist blows to the head.

Would you rather that someone dropped a shoulder on you at centre ice when you’re looking at your laces, or shove you headfirst into the end boards when you’re going full out?

These purposeful acts of violence happen all the time in hockey games. The only reason we aren’t as appalled by them as Judge Harris is that the results do not shock us. Most victims get up and skate away. A few have to be helped off, but they’re back in days or weeks. No lasting harm, no criminal foul. That’s our unstated societal position.

What isn’t fully explored is how crucial violence is to pro hockey. Without it, you lose your so-and-so’s-out-for-revenge stories. Without revenge stories, you’re selling flag football. If you’re going to be a fan, you have to make your peace with that.

Then Adam Johnson was killed in an English Elite League game. That shock no one feels any more was suddenly felt.

Everyone involved, including Johnson’s family, seemed prepared to accept that an awful accident had taken place.

But on Tuesday, police in Britain made an arrest in the case on suspicion of manslaughter. As a matter of law, the name of the player whose skate fatally hit Johnson in the throat – Toronto’s Matt Petgrave – hasn’t been brought into it.

The arrested person has not been charged with a crime, and has been released pending further inquiries.

A dozen people can watch a dozen angles of Petgrave’s collision with Johnson and have a dozen perspectives on exactly what happened, and how, and whose fault it is, if anyone’s. No one has suggested that Petgrave intended to kill Johnson, or even hurt him.

The people who see it in the worst light – such as former NHLer Sean Avery and half the posters on Reddit – think Petgrave intended to strike someone with his trailing foot and struck wrong.

The central thing here is that an innocent man is dead. Adam Johnson was a real person. He had a mom and a dad. He was getting married. This isn’t a Netflix whodunnit.

This should have been left there, but the arrest changes that math. Now we’re into the realm of sleuthing.

More than a few hockey players have been charged with crimes after violent incidents, but not recently and it rarely ends in conviction.

In the mid-70s, the Philadelphia Flyers attacked a couple of Toronto cops in the stands behind the bench. It was like something straight out of Slap Shot. A female usher was injured in the melée. Four Flyers were charged. Two of them ended up with fines.

Based on the video in that instance, it could not be more clear what the intention was and who was at fault. And they still couldn’t pin it on everyone.

The 30 kilometre-an-hour sequence involving four players that led to Johnson’s death is an entirely different scenario than that one.

In this instance, intentions can only be guessed at. Anyone confidently assigning fault hasn’t played contact sports in a while. There is a titanic difference between thinking someone meant to do something and knowing they did. Often, that gulf cannot be crossed.

Absent a confession, it is beyond me how a prosecutor could believe they can prove Petgrave meant to strike out with his skate blade, whether to injure or not. His fist? His stick? Sure, that happens all the time.

But his foot? Hockey players don’t kick people, the same way baseball players don’t slide into home plate with their elbows up. It’s taboo.

Could it have happened? Of course. Anything is possible.

Is it likely? That’s so difficult to say that it ought not be speculated at.

Is it provable beyond a reasonable doubt? While keeping an open mind, I have an extremely hard time imagining how.

Maybe this is all down to demonstrating to the public that all violent deaths – even the ones that appear to be blameless tragedies – will be fully investigated. If so, there’s merit in that.

It could also be investigators who don’t know hockey assuming that if someone dies during a game, someone else must have meant for that to happen.

Hockey isn’t cricket, or even rugby. It’s semi-controlled chaos. Bodies move unpredictably when they are slamming into other bodies at high speed while on metal runners. Perhaps that will become clear during the investigation. Maybe nobody cares and the intention is to scare players into docility. We’ll see.

If the goal here is figuring out what happened and finding ways to prevent it happening again, a coroner’s inquest would be a better forum than a criminal trial.

But if the goal is using the example of hockey to decry violence generally and score points, then I can’t see how we learn anything from this.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe