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‘Lost A Family Member’

UMD hockey coach, players reflect on the death of former Bulldogs assistant captain, Adam Johnson.

Johnson scored 55 points in 81 career games from UMD, along with being a two-time NCHC All-Academic Team selection. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

In a normal college hockey season, we’d be just getting the first rush of excitement and high-spirited rivalries around the first of November, and there wouldn’t be any tragedies that might inhibit the good times. Not like now, when the tragic death of former UMD Bulldog Adam Johnson has dominated all the results of what have been reclassified as just games.

Going back 50 years, a hockey series between the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth would command the spotlight of all the state’s sports fans. The Golden Gophers were the only Division I college hockey team before that, until UMD joined the WCHA in a bold attempt to go “big time” Division I in 1965.

After UMD played one year in the old Curling Club, the Bulldogs moved into the sparkling new Duluth Arena — later the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center — and their first WCHA game in that harbor-side facility was against the Golden Gophers on Nov. 19, 1966. The anticipated full house of 5,700 fans was in place, and so was UMD center Keith “Huffer” Christiansen. He spent the game leaving a trail of Gopher skaters behind as he flitted around the ice, setting up six goals as UMD thrilled the home fans and shocked Minnesota 8-1.

That ignited the rivalry that rose to breathtaking intensity over the years between the “Main U” and the ”Duluth Branch,” and should have been the state’s treasure for a lifetime. When the teams meet this weekend, almost 57 years later, Christiansen’s six assists still stand as the UMD single-game assist record. But everything else is different.

First of all, the WCHA has been shattered and split as the expanded field of six Division I teams in the state now branch off into three different conferences — the Gophers in the Big Ten, UMD and St. Cloud State in the dominant National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and Minnesota State Mankato, Bemidji State and newcomer St. Thomas in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

With the Gophers and Bulldogs in different conferences, and no games between the two last year, the edge of intensity is off the renewal of the rivalry, which will be conducted Friday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci and Saturday night at Duluth’s AMSOIL Arena.

Another reason that might dull the edge is that UMD, after starting 3-0-2 this season and winning shootouts after the two ties, went to Ithaca, N.Y., last weekend and lost 4-1 and 3-0 to highly rated Cornell. The Gophers, then ranked No. 1 in the nation, was swept at home by Wisconsin in 5-2 and 3-2 games. 

Adam Johnson skates in a game against Colorado while playing with the Bulldogs. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

Bulldogs remember Adam Johnson
The emphasis for the Bulldogs all week is to talk about real-world matters off the ice, and try to focus on practice and the upcoming games during the week of preparation for the Gophers. No small task.

Adam Johnson, 29, was the son of Davey Johnson, who was a star at Hibbing High School and then played for four years at UMD. That connection was among the reasons Adam grew up hoping to also play for the Bulldogs. In high school, Adam led the Hibbing/Chisholm Bluejackets to the Class 1A boys state hockey tournament his sophomore year. Even though they lost to Hermantown in a semifinal game, Johnson scored a pure hat trick. It was after that sophomore season that he accepted an offer from another Hibbing grad, Scott Sandelin, who was by then head coach at UMD.

“We had been tracking him through various summer camps,” said Sandelin. “He could skate, handle the puck, and was a playmaker. For us, being a Northern Minnesota school, it’s important for us to try to get the best Northern Minnesota kids. He was an unbelievable skater and so talented that it was evident he was in an elite category at a young age. I felt fortunate to have coached him for a couple of years just to be around him. I remember his smile, his wit. We all loved him; he was a fun guy to be around. I wish I’d the chance to coach him more than two years.”

As a sophomore, Johnson was UMD’s second-leading scorer in goals and points. His biggest goal was probably the one he scored to beat Boston University 3-2 in the West Region Final to send the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four in 2017. That team, which Sandelin regards as possibly the most talented he’s had at UMD, lost in the NCAA final to Denver. But it was the springboard for UMD to win the next two NCAA championships.

Johnson took advantage of his stellar sophomore season and signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played in 13 NHL games with the club, and scored a goal against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. He spent most of his days in the American League, however, so he decided to venture to Europe, where he played with a team in Sweden for one season, then a team in Germany before signing this year with the Nottingham Panthers of the Elite Hockey League.

Johnson’s upbeat and magnetic personality made him an immediate hit with his new teammates, and he was among the best players when the team went to Sheffield to face the Sheffield Steelers last Saturday night. He carried the puck up the left side, going 2-on-2 against the two Sheffield defensemen. Sheffield player Matt Petgrave and Johnson collided, and Petgrave’s skate blade cut Johnson’s throat. 

“I heard about the incident before our game, and I knew it sounded bad,” said Sandelin, who kept the news from his players as they took the ice for Saturday’s Cornell game. “I didn’t know he had passed away until after our game.

“I coached that game with a heavy heart. The incident itself was scary, and you don’t think about things like that happening. It puts everything into a different perspective. Our hockey team is a family, and we’ve lost a family member, and it hurts. The whole hockey world is a family, and it’s pretty touching to see how everybody is reaching out.”

Adam Johnson skates with the puck against Miami. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

Reactions to Johnson’s death
In the time since the incident, some social media users were quick to criticize Petgrave, 31, who is from Toronto and played for three different Ontario Hockey League junior teams including Niagara Falls, Owen Sound, and the Oshawa Generals, before playing four years at the University of New Brunswick. Trying professional hockey led Petgrave to Europe. He played in Denmark before signing with Sheffield.

After the incident, social media was filled with the narrative that Petgrave tried to intentionally kick Johnson. But various teammates of Johnson came to Petgrave’s defense — including Westin Michaud, a former Cloquet star who played at Colorado College and at North Dakota before making his way to Nottingham.

“The hate that Matt is receiving is terrible and completely uncalled for,” Michaud said, in a post on X. “I was at ice level on the bench, closest to the accident. I saw both players moving fast. The unintentional clip of the Panther player’s leg by the Sheffield player caused the somersault. It’s clear to me his actions were unintentional and anyone suggesting otherwise is mistaken. Let’s come together and not spread unwarranted hate to someone who needs our support.”

Victor Bjorkung, a Panther teammate from Sweden, said in an interview with a Swedish outlet: “I was a couple of meters away, so if anyone experienced it as it really was, it was me. It’s so insane that people think it was deliberate. Check the video, then you will see it’s an accident. Two skates collide right before and it goes so damn fast, there is no chance it is deliberate. I have texted him [Petgrave] and expressed how I feel about everything, and I support him. No one on our team thinks it’s his fault. Quite the opposite. We stand behind him.”

Teams throughout Europe and the NHL have paid tribute to Johnson, none more touching than the Penguins, who put a gigantic photo of Johnson in his Penguins uniform on the scoreboard. Then the announcer said instead of a moment of silence, let’s all give one final cheer in tribute to Adam Johnson.

UMD captain Luke Loheit said the players learned of Johnson’s death after Saturday’s game, then flew home Sunday before Sandelin conducted a team meeting to discuss the incident.

“I didn’t know him real well, but I skated with him a few times,” said Loheit, a fifth-year graduate student from Minnetonka. “We had a conversation as a team Monday, and talked about their family, and how important it is to enjoy being here, and to enjoy each other.

“You can’t go out there [on the ice] and not think about it. It was a freak accident, and as seniors, we all have to deal with it in our own way. Obviously, we lost a family member, and there’s support throughout Minnesota and the hockey world.”

Sandelin and the players talked about the likelihood that some legislation is likely to add neck protection collars to the hockey uniforms as soon as next season. The UK Elite League has already made them mandatory.

“We haven’t talked about neck protection,” Sandelin said. “But I’m sure this will open some eyes to the problem.”

UMD women’s coach Maura Crowell, whose team plays St. Thomas Friday and Saturday at AMSOIL, said she will be investigating what is sure to be an increasing number of throat protectors.

“I would be shocked if the NCAA didn’t pass a new rule about neck protection,” Cromwell said.

Former UMD coach Mike Sertich, who recently came through exhaustive treatment to be declared free of the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with less than a year ago, said he has always been close to Davey Johnson.

“He called me all the time while I was going through my treatment,” Sertich said. “And I’ve talked to him several times since this happened. It’s heartbreaking. I haven’t seen the video and I don’t want to see it.”

Sertich, after coaching UMD and Michigan Tech, spent a couple of years coaching Bantam hockey in Hermantown back when Adam Johnson was a Bantam at Hibbing.

“I remember we played them in a playoff game,” Sertich said. “Adam scored the winning goal against us, and afterward he skated over to our bench and apologized to me. That’s the kind of person he was.”

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