Ice hockey tragedy is the greatest desolation -- and greatest sense of community -- I’ve seen in all my years writing about sport
THERE is so much tribal hatred on the margins of football that you become inured to it, viewing every gesture through that prism.
It’s why, to some of us who were there, the sight of Sheffield Steelers ice hockey supporters wearing jerseys with the name ‘Petgrave’ on the back, was so startling, when crowds gathered in bleak Nottingham rain on Saturday night to remember the local team’s young player, Adam Johnson, who died after unimaginable horror on the rink.
‘Petgrave’ — Matt Petgrave — was the Sheffield player whose skate blade fatally cut Johnson’s carotid artery 10 days ago. To have worn his replica jersey at a commemorative event in the kind of sporting context most of us are more familiar with would have been viewed as provocation.
It was anything but. Followers of the Panthers, Johnson’s team, and the Steelers filed through the Nottingham Arena together in their hundreds, random strangers from those two cities, occasionally finding words to fill the silence as they waited to sign a book of condolence.
The grief and trauma was etched across so many faces. I approached a woman who seemed to be there with her family. ‘I can’t,’ she said, sensing the question, seeing the notebook. ‘We were there when it happened, you see.’ I cannot recall a scene of greater desolation, or greater community, in 15 years of writing about sport.
Petgrave is the individual who must live with the consequences of that split-second collision and it is hard to imagine he will ever take to the rink again. Few, if any, in the field of competitive sport have contended with what he must now take through his days. When Sean Abbott bowled the ball that fatally struck the Australia batsman Phillip hughes, nine years ago, there was at least the knowledge that 22 yards of turf separated the pair.
For Petgrave, there is no such private consolation about cause and effect. To compound matters there is the viewpoint, expounded in the US where the sport has a vast following, that this may have been the premeditated use of the skate blade as a weapon.
That view is dismissed to the point of disdain by several UK-based former NHL ice hockey players I have spoken to who — let’s be clear — take an extremely dim view of what they consider to be a deliberate and reckless manoeuvre on Petgrave’s part to block Johnson (right) that night in Sheffield. It’s embedded in the ethos of the sport that you don’t act recklessly. Petgrave’s skate seemed recklessly high.
But across the Atlantic, the narrative has assumed a more vicious tone. Fox TV ‘ host’ Jesse Watters ventured into a discussion of criminality and intent, with the controversialist tone which pays his rent. That’s the same Watters who this week appeared to validate violence against Arab Americans in the US in the context of the Israel/ hamas war in Gaza.
he presumably imagined that tough former ice hockey pro Sean Avery — who says in his autobiography that his own public persona is ‘a hate-filled wrecking ball’ — would subscribe to this view. But Avery flatly disagreed with him.
Canadian former pro Chris Therien, another of the sport’s angry men, did voice the kind of outrage that gratifies people like Watters, though his own perspective on catastrophic rink events hardly makes him a credible authority.
Therien once accidentally ended another player’s career but felt ‘ snubbed’ when that player didn’t respond to a message from him. Therien stated in his autobiography that the injury, to someone else, might have affected his own mental health.
This is the sum total of the ‘deliberate assault’ theory, though it has been enough to fuel a tide of abuse, a lot of it racially motivated, towards Petgrave, one of the relatively few black players in the sport.
David Simms, the Steelers’ matchday rink announcer, has blocked or reported 350 accounts on Twitter. ‘Mostly American, non-hockey related, certainly not Steelers/Panthers related.’
And that’s where Saturday night’s replica shirts come into this story, because what we have witnessed since Johnson’s death is a sport coalescing and uniting against the controversialists and the racists.
To those of us on the outside, this union is quite surprising. Ice hockey is, after all, a sport which wears its rivalries on its sleeves and positively promotes the titanic collisions and fights which can ensue.
The role of on-rink ‘enforcer’ — a player who will exact a form of vengeance and act as a protector for the more skilful star — is deeply engrained and captured in the brilliant film Ice Guardians.
But that kind of violence, with its pantomime element, is not reflected within a support base where the vitriol so often found in football is simply not present.
Dr Victoria Silverwood, who has studied the culture of violence in ice hockey and contributed to Ice Guardians, says the sport’s relatively small fan base is one of the many reasons. ‘ Supporters have more in common with each other,’ she tells me.
The acts of remembrance in the top-flight elite hockey League last weekend included no player wearing the No 47 jersey, Johnson’s number. It is thought that the number may now be permanently retired by all clubs as a mark of respect.
The Steelers will return to the rink at Manchester Storm’s ‘ Shelter’ on Saturday. As of yesterday, there were eight seats left in the rink’s ‘away’ blocks.
‘We’re sure Saturday is going to be difficult and many are wanting to support the team in their first game back,’ Storm tweeted to Steelers fans.
‘Feel free to book anywhere inside the Storm Shelter. You will be looked after.’