Sheffield Steelers prepare for emotional return to action for first time since Adam Johnson tragedy
For those present at the Elite League Challenge Cup encounter between Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers that witnessed the hugely tragic death of Adam Johnson, it is almost impossible to imagine the emotional and mental impact on them.
Families with young children, players, coaches, medical staff, match officials, those watching at home on the webcast – the list goes on regarding those affected.
Of the two teams involved, the Steelers are the first to return to action on Saturday night when they make the trip across the Pennines to take on Manchester Storm in what will be, in many ways, a meaningless Cup group game. Yes, points are at stake, but there is a far bigger picture.
The Storm will also provide the opposition for when the Panthers – who have subsequently pulled out of the Challenge Cup – make their return to the ice for a special Memorial Game in honour of Johnson next Saturday at the Motorpoint Arena.
For the Steelers, stepping out at Planet Ice Altrincham will be tough enough but a bigger test – emotionally and mentally – probably comes tomorrow when they play at home for the first time since that awful night, hosting Coventry Blaze.
There will have been many hurdles for players, coaches and staff at Sheffield and Nottingham to overcome this past fortnight.
One already for the Steelers will have been getting back out on that same home ice for a routine practice session, several times probably in readiness for this weekend’s games.
The first game back represents another challenge, as will skating out on Sunday in front of a home crowd again, many of who will also have been present two weeks ago.
It’s an obvious cliche but time is a great healer, the sport will eventually move on and come to terms with the enormity of what happened on the evening of October 28. Nothing and nobody will be or should ever be forgotten, but some kind of normality will return. Although it is unlikely to be the same as before.
Unlike the build-up to every other weekend’s games, there have been no media interviews, no questions for Steelers’ staff and players to answer and understandably so. They have bigger issues to deal with as they look to support each other through the latest stage of a traumatic period.
The nature of the incident that led to Johnson’s death has already led to action being taken by various governing bodies around the hockey world in terms of player safety.
In the UK, the Elite League has – for now – opted against making the wearing of neckguards mandatory.
Some players, acutely aware of the dangers they face each time they step out for a shift on the ice, have already taken matters into their own hands and decided to wear one.
Elsewhere, the EIHA – responsible for the sport in England and Wales from the NIHL National down to all junior, university and rec hockey – last week became one of the first governing bodies to declare it would make the wearing of neck guards mandatory for players of all ages from January 1.
Under the current rules of world governing body the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), all players playing at Under-20 or below are required to wear a neckguard.
In the inquest opened into Johnson’s death – caused by his neck being slashed by a blade from an opponent’s skate – Sheffield coroner Tanya Rawkden said she believes action should be taken to prevent future deaths.
The inquest has been adjourned until early January, but in a report sent to Ice Hockey UK, the EIHA and the IIHF, she stated: “In due course the inquest will consider whether the use of a neck guard could have prevented Mr Johnson's death.
“At this stage in my investigation however, I am sufficiently concerned that deaths may occur in the future if neck guards or protectors are not worn.
“In my opinion action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you have the power to take such action.”
Former Steelers’ forward Jason Hewitt – now player-coach of affiliate team Sheffield Steeldogs, who compete in the NIHL National – says the tragedy has hit home with people how dangerous hockey can be.
The freak accident that led to Johnson’s death is exactly that, extremely rare, but – in part due to the EIHA’s announcement, it not surprisingly led to a clamour by teams and clubs to try and order as many of them as they possibly could.
Hewitt, 40, hasn’t worn a neck guard for around 20 years or so, but said he and his players would get on board with the new safety rule.
“Speaking for myself, it is just utterly tragic what happened,” said Hewitt, whose day job sees him working for Bauer, one of hockey’s biggest equipment suppliers. “Obviously, I don’t think anybody expected something like that to happen, but now with the neck protection that is available, it’s not that restrictive or inhibiting and the kids are coming through wearing them anyway, so why take it off now?
“The company I work for are looking at innovative ways to make these things more comfortable and safer for players. It’s really opened the eyes for a lot of people of how potentially dangerous the sport can be.”
Through his work but also through his time at the club as a player, Hewitt knows several members of the Steelers’ organisation. He appreciates it will be a difficult weekend for them.
“Mentally it is harder than physically when it comes to things like this,” he added.
“I’ve spoken to a couple of them and understandably, they weren’t in a good head space with it all.
"It will have been absolutely shocking to have been so close to something like that and when the guys get back on the ice, they’ve got to be there for each other and I’m sure they will be.
“Obviously what has happened is bigger than the game, the sport, but I do hope they can all come through it okay.”