"Witty," "beloved" and "funny" are just some of the words players and coaches have used to describe Adam Johnson. His impact on them will not soon be forgotten, and neither will the impact of his death on the sport of hockey.
"I remember his little smile, every day. I liked his wit ... but just the impact he had on his teammates too. They all loved him," said Scott Sandelin, head coach of the University of Minnesota Bulldogs.
When death and sport collide, emotions like the ones expressed by Sandelin help comfort the grieving. They also comfort the worried, as these incidents are an uncomfortable reminder of the risks these athletes readily assume.
"Is there going to be some fear? Absolutely. If there's not, you're not human," Sandelin said. "If it's not in your head right away in the thought process then I don't think you're human. I don't think you can just push that aside. I do think it affects everybody who plays the game."
The game is one that has come under increased scrutiny now that that risk has been displayed for the world to see. Shortly after Saturday night's incident, the English Ice Hockey Association mandated neck protectors be worn during games starting Jan. 1 — a mandate that has already been in effect in youth hockey leagues in both Ontario and Quebec, but not in the United States. In early January, a 10th grader in Connecticut died in a similar fashion to Johnson when a skate lacerated his neck. USA Hockey, the governing body in the U.S., did not change its regulations on neck protectors, but instead doubled down on its strong recommendation that players wear them.
"It's always unfortunate when it takes something catastrophic to grab people's attention. I do think it's something that needs to be looked at. There's been some close calls. there's been some we probably haven't heard about. I know there's been injuries through skates whether it's arms, legs. So I think it's something that needs to be looked at and discussed," Sandelin said. "We play a game with risks but if we can mitigate that in some way it does need to be looked at."
On Monday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks came together at center ice to commemorate Johnson before their game as they adorned their helmets with Johnson's number 47. And while some players took a moment to themselves, others took initiative. TJ Oshie, a winger for the Washington Capitals, says his company Warroad Hockey Co. has already sold out of its neck protectors after more than 100 pros reached out asking to order one in hopes this tragedy is not one that is repeated.
"He got along with everybody. He was fun to be around. He was the life of the party. And when you have that and your teammates see that, that's one reason we saw him as being a leader," Sandelin said.
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