Celebrating Adam Johnson’s life as team-mates return to the ice to ‘do what he loved’

It is there in the chill of this November evening, as people pause arm in arm to survey the carpet of flowers.

Then in the warmth of songs and chants as supporters welcome their grieving heroes back to the rink for the first time since it happened.

This isn’t only a memorial match for Adam Johnson, the Nottingham Panthers hockey player who died after a “freak accident” on the ice last month. For the close-knit community of this sport, it is a source of comfort too. It is a family gathering sealed with a collective “big bear hug”, as Panthers assistant coach Kevin Moore says afterwards.

For Panthers fans and those watching on a live-feed back in Johnson’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, 3,792 miles away, it is a moment to come together. To try to make sense of the senselessness.

A 6,500 crowd attends the game against Manchester Storm at the Motorpoint Arena Nottingham on Saturday, some arriving several hours before the 7pm face-off.

Outside, many of them wearing the club’s special black and white ‘Adam Johnson 47’ memorial jerseys, mingle and take in the subdued atmosphere.

Players, officials and fans observe 47 seconds of silence (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Some were at Utilita Arena to watch the game against Sheffield Steelers on October 28, when Johnson suffered the fatal injury. Off-duty nurse Paula Fereday rushed to his aid from her seat in Sheffield three weeks ago. And if those attending had not been in South Yorkshire, many knew someone who was.

“I was on holiday or I would have been there,” says John Denham, from Nottingham. “My two daughters are 18 and 21 and they were there. The youngest called me afterwards in tears and the first thing she said was: ‘I think I’ve just seen one of our players die.’

“I have been concerned about them. It’s a very difficult thing for anyone to see. I just told her it was one of those freak things, because how do you make sense of it?

“For my part, I just wanted to be here tonight to pay my respects. I felt it was important.”

Paul Braisby, a Panthers season ticket holder for 23 years, would not have been anywhere else either.

Braisby, who sits in Block 19 — an especially partisan section behind one of the goals known for its band of drummers — came with his wife, a Cardiff Devils follower.


Paul Braisby and his wife came to remember Johnson (Greg O’Keeffe)

“Whether you’ve been a Panther for two weeks or 10 years, we’re like a family and Adam was part of our family,” he says of the player who joined the Panthers from Augsburger Panther in Germany in August.

“We welcome anyone who wants to be here for Adam too. Things like this unite the whole ice hockey community.”

Next to the arena entrance, two ladies handed out homemade placards with ‘Johnson 47’ on them. On the ground floor concourse, counsellors from Nottinghamshire Talking Therapy, a free and confidential service provided by the National Health Service (the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system), gave out flyers.

“We’re here to signpost people who might want to talk about it and to let them know about what we do,” explains Martha Highton. “Some of the fans who were in Sheffield may have not processed what they saw yet, it is a traumatic memory. It’s a very emotional occasion for everyone. We want to let people know it’s OK to talk about it.”

The pre-game music has a more sombre feel than usual. Coming Home by Rita Ora, Sigma, and WSTRN is followed by Heroes Tonight by Janji.

Usually, many supporters linger on the concourse to have a beer before heading for their seats only a few minutes before face-off. But yesterday, the roar which greeted the players as they emerged to warm-up was the first of many fitting moments.

The kits have changed too. The Panthers wear their tribute jerseys, replicas of which thousands of supporters had paid £47 ($58) for, with every penny going to the Love for Hibbing and Hockey Memorial Fund in aid of charitable causes in Johnson’s hometown.

Adam Johnson

Samuel Tremblay (left) of Manchester Storm and Mathieu Lemay of the Panthers (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

The buying of merchandise only adds to the fundraising — the sales of pucks have doubled, with ‘47 Adam Johnson’ specials proving popular mementoes.

In the build-up, the big screen plays a video montage of Johnson’s career highlights followed by 47 seconds of silence. Then the lights go down and the volume goes up for nearly three minutes of rolling applause to the thump of Block 19 drums and chants of the former NHL player’s name.

“We’re here to celebrate Adam’s life and our incredible team, and their bravery and resilience in returning to the ice,” says the announcer.



In Hibbing, Minn., he was just ‘Adam’: Memories of Adam Johnson, a local hockey hero gone too soon

He then reveals that Johnson’s 47 jersey was officially retired. “He will now forever be our number 47,” he said.

The national anthem plays before Valentina Rose, a young girl from San Diego, drops the puck.

At first, it is a practice-match pace and contact is minimal. But when Ollie Betteridge pops home a rebound to level for the hosts after an early Storm lead, the White Stripes’ Seven Nations Army blasts from the speakers and there is a fleeting dash of normality. The tempo of play picks up.

At the end of the first period, the Panthers change their ’keeper, and they do so again later to ensure as many of their squad as possible get the chance to be involved.

There is no rough stuff. If the puck goes into the corner, the players challenge carefully with their sticks.

The occasion remains at the fore of everything. Supporter Christine Morris, who wins £1,500 in a competition during the second intermission, immediately donates £500 of it to Johnson’s charity.

In the 47th minute, play stops and both teams knock the ice with their sticks as Johnson’s name is sung once more. The officials — their kits also featuring the number 47 — applaud.


Fans in the 47th minute (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

The final buzzer sounds with the scores tied 4-4. Panthers players give one another high fives and mask taps before both teams line up to exchange hugs.

“Really it was just love for each other, right?” says Moore as he reflects on the feelings in the home locker room. “We’re happy to be able to show our support for Adam and his family by coming out here and just playing and doing what we love and what he loved.

“We really wanted this to be a loving day and a loving night.”

The coaching staff designed a staged plan to help the players return to the ice for the first time since losing their friend. Next Sunday, their league schedule resumes against Belfast Giants.

“There have been daily check-ins,” Moore says. “We’ve just been leaning into the human side of things and trying to find ways to provide hope and healing step by step.

“The first phase was, ‘If you want to go on the ice, go on the ice.’ It wasn’t a training session, but certainly some guys wanted to get back out there and shoot pucks.

“We had a few out there on Halloween, and I hopped out there in a ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage (wrestling) costume to try to get them to laugh.

“Then there was more structure and we said, ‘Hey, let’s get in the room together’ and fortunately everybody then wanted to skate, so we were able to progress to drills and then move into phase three when we introduced a couple more tactical things and did some full-ice five on five.

“There was a well-thought-out plan of how we were going to make them feel safe. The number one goal was safety; you know, emotional safety. The guys have been great and resilient but it has been incredibly hard.

“We talked about things like: ‘What’s going to help get you through safely?’ And mine was smiles on the faces of the guys. We saw it today on the bench and I think you’ll see it the rest of the year because if you knew Adam, that’s how he was.”

Adam Johnson

Johnson was 29 when he died (Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Moore, who flew to Hibbing to speak at Johnson’s celebration of life service on November 7, says the events of recent weeks still feel surreal. But most of all he has felt the “bear hug” of warmth everywhere he has gone.

“It feels like we have the entire city behind us,” he says. “The fans have been incredible every day.

“Just to get hugs from strangers on the street or… for us to provide a hug for somebody who might need it who’s struggling with this.”

The conflict to comprehend their loss will go on. But as players and fans alike make their way into the night on Saturday, there is solace in knowing Johnson will never be forgotten.

After all, even in a city far from home where he had lived but a few months, he was already part of the family.

(Top photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

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