Remembering Adam Johnson, ex-NHL player who died after skate-blade accident: ‘An unbelievable human being’

Those in Minnesota hockey circles remember the exact moment Adam Johnson became a household name.

It was March 2011, Johnson’s sophomore year at Hibbing/Chisholm, and with the Bluejackets down 4-1 in the semifinals, Johnson single-handedly erased that three-goal deficit by pulling off a natural hat trick.

Now, Hermantown ended up winning the game to advance to the championship, but Johnson catapulting his team from a sure defeat to a near victory became legendary.

“It was one of those weird things where Hermantown won the game but Adam Johnson was the star,” said longtime University of Minnesota-Duluth play-by play voice Bruce Ciskie.

Not long after, the teenager committed to UMD. Bulldogs fans were overjoyed because blue-chip guys with Johnson’s type of offensive ability didn’t often end up there, but Johnson was looked upon as having the chance to be a cornerstone player and one from only 75 miles away from Duluth.

On Saturday, 4,000 miles from his hometown, Johnson tragically died at the age of 29 after a “freak accident” in a professional hockey game in England while playing for the Nottingham Panthers. After a collision, an opposing player’s skate blade came up and cut Johnson’s neck. The aftermath was obvious to everybody. The arena was cleared out, the game was halted, and Johnson later died at a local hospital.


Ice hockey player Adam Johnson dies after ‘freak accident’ during game

“Just horrifying and tragic and so, so sad,” said Colorado Avalanche forward and Johnson’s former college teammate Riley Tufte from Calgary, where his phone erupted with calls and texts Saturday from friends, loved ones and fellow former UMD teammates. “I can’t tell you how loved this guy was and just how proud he was to play at UMD.”

Johnson only ever wanted to be a Bulldog. He used to be the MVP at all of UMD’s hockey camps growing up as a kid, and after that state tournament game that put him on everybody’s radar, Johnson didn’t entertain a single other school. His father, Davey, called the “water bug” because of his feistiness, played four years at UMD, captaining the Bulldogs in 1980-81. His uncle, Gary DeGrio, played four years there as well.

“That’s where Adam got the skating gene,” said UMD’s coach, Scott Sandelin, on Sunday. “That’s the one thing Adam always had: He could fly.”

Sandelin, too, was from Hibbing, so it made all the sense in the world for Johnson to attend UMD. And together, Adam and Davey Johnson became one of 12 father-son combinations in UMD hockey history.

“He was so super talented,” Hibbing hockey legend Pat Micheletti, the former University of Minnesota forward, said. “He was one of those guys that if you went to an outdoor rink, he would just dazzle you with the puck. He was heads and tails above everyone else. You would see him and just go, ‘Oh my God,’ because on the ice, he was absolutely magical.”

Johnson signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins after his sophomore year, playing 257 games over three years with Wilkes-Barre and 13 games on the NHL roster.

“He could skate. He could really skate. He was a beautiful skater,” said Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin, Wilkes-Barre’s GM at the time. “Just a good, nice kid. Like, so nice. He wasn’t the most talkative kid, but you knew he loved the sport. His teammates all loved him, and we wanted guys like Adam in our system.”

Johnson’s one and only goal in the National Hockey League happened to come at Xcel Energy Center in front of family and friends against his home state Wild and in the same game as Penguins teammate Sam Lafferty.

“How cool is that?” said longtime NHLer Matt Cullen, Johnson’s former teammate who now works for the Pens. “We hit it off really well just because of the fact we’re both from the Iron Range, him being a Hibbing guy and me from Virginia. We had a lot in common, a lot of fun stories.

“He was just a salt-of-the-earth guy. Super humble, easy to be around. Just one of those guys that you love playing with and having on your team. And he was a heck of a hockey player. Like, oh man, could he skate.”

Tufte said Johnson got engaged to be married this past summer and his girlfriend, Ryan Wolfe, was living with him in England. Johnson is survived by his parents, Davey and Sue, and an older brother, Ryan, as well as many aunts, uncles and cousins, and his grandmother, Marilyn, who was “his biggest fan,” a family friend said.

Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty

Johnson, left, and Sam Lafferty after scoring their first NHL goals on Oct. 12, 2019, at Minnesota. (Courtesy of Pete Rutili)

“Both my sons played with Adam and when you watch a kid from Mites into the professional ranks and get to experience a little bit of that accomplishment, it’s a source of pride for our families and community,” said Thad Johannessohn, who is from Davey Johnson’s hometown of Kelly Lake. “Adam texted me last month when I lost my son Race. Adam was a class act and the loss to us is enormous, but it’s unimaginable for his family.”

The last time Tufte saw Johnson was with many of his former teammates this past summer at former Bulldogs teammate Karson Kuhlman’s wedding. As usual, Johnson was the life of the party, Tufte said.

“He’s definitely one of a kind,” Tufte said with a chuckle. “He’s a guy that, really, anybody can get along with. I mean, he’s from Hibbing, so that tells you a lot. He’s a guy that whenever you’d walk in a room and you’d see him, he’d light up a smile on your face. I have so many good memories of him. Everybody loved him.

“Johns was just an unbelievable dude, an unbelievable human being. Just a very loving guy.”

That’s what Sandelin will remember most.

“He had that Iron Range-ish sense of humor,” Sandelin said. “He used to come back in the summers to work out and for the golf tournament, and he was just fun to be around. He had that Adam Johnson sense of humor.

“This is just so hard to grasp. He’ll be missed, man. Too short. Too short. Twenty-nine years old. This puts a lot of things into perspective. The game (at Cornell) didn’t mean jack s— last night for me.”

The hockey world expressed its sorrow all day Sunday through many social media posts on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook and Instagram.

Brett Sutter called Johnson a great teammate and person and said, “that smile and dry sense of humor will be missed. Rest peacefully my friend.”

Ciskie remembers the bus rides on long road trips.

“He just was always fun to talk to. Always had time for us,” Ciskie recalled. “He always had a good attitude, always had a smile on his face, was always willing to help out his teammates. And just one of those people that you wish you’d had him here for more than two years because the two years we had were pretty special.”

His skill level was off the charts. There was the home opener in 2016 against Notre Dame when he split the defense and gave himself a partial breakaway. There was the overtime goal to beat Boston University to send UMD to the Frozen Four in 2017. There was that game Carson Soucy got hurt and Sandelin threw Johnson back on the blue line because he knew he played there his freshman year in high school.

“I think Adam could have played anywhere,” Sandelin said.

Johnson was one of those players who could make a play at full speed right down the middle of the ice without slowing down.

“You always hear about the kids that are special coming up and I remember hearing of him coming up,” Cullen said. “He was something really unique and the small towns up in northern Minnesota, it holds a little extra special something.”

Neal Pionk wedding scaled

Johnson, pictured in the center at Neal Pionk’s wedding. “They were best of buds,” Rutili said of Johnson and Pionk’s friendship. (Courtesy of Riley Tufte)

Added Tufte, “He absolutely just lit it up in high school and then went to Sioux City and lit it up with (Neal) Pionk and again with Neal at Duluth. He was one of those guys on the ice that just when he turned it on, he turned it on, and nobody could stop him. Just an absolute phenom when he was younger.”

Tufte’s Avs were set to play the Calgary Flames on Sunday afternoon. Tufte admitted this incident would be difficult to keep out of his mind and he’s amazed that in such a fast sport incidents like this don’t happen more often.

“I think any hockey player never wants to see anybody go through this type of terrible injury, and honestly, I’m not afraid to say it, when I show up for (Sunday’s) game and put the skates on, I’m going to be thinking about what happened,” Tufte said. “It’s going to take a while for that to probably go away and to play free out there, especially this happening to a buddy that you know.

“It’s just a freak accident and absolutely awful and nobody ever wants to see that. But, yeah, you got it in the back of your head, ‘Do I wear a neck guard now?’ I don’t know. Maybe guys will start wearing them now. But this is now two people I know.”

Back in his high school days with Moorhead, the Seattle Kraken’s Will Borgen was playing in a hockey camp in the Twin Cities when a skate missed his carotid artery by millimeters. He has a huge scar on his neck as a reminder.

“This probably happens a lot more in hockey than we know, but nobody ever hears about it unless it happens at the pro level,” Tufte said. “I don’t know. All I can tell you is this is devastating for all of us. Johns is such a great, great person, a great human being. He had his whole life ahead of him, was marrying a St. Francis girl. He’ll be missed by us all.”

(Top photo: Glenn James / NHLI via Getty Images)

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