In wake of arrest after on-ice death, Blackhawks weigh in on when hockey crosses the line: ‘There’s definitely a code’

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CHICAGO — Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy can’t bring himself to watch the video of former NHL player Adam Johnson’s fatal neck injury during an English league hockey game last month.

“I never saw the video because I didn’t want to watch it, to be honest,” Murphy said. “I didn’t want that image in my mind. It’s so horrific and I just think about his family and him.”

But he did hear the news that police in England arrested a man Tuesday on suspicion of manslaughter. The suspect was released on bail Wednesday.

The man South Yorkshire Police arrested has not been identified publicly. Footage from the Oct. 28 game establishes that Sheffield Steelers player Matt Petgrave’s leg kicked up after a collision with one of Johnson’s Nottingham Panthers teammates, and Petgrave’s skate blade cut Johnson’s neck.

Johnson, a former Pittsburgh Penguins forward, later died in the hospital. He was 29.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Panthers called it a “freak accident” in a statement.

Since then people in the hockey community have wrestled with reading into the intent of Petgrave’s actions — whether it was accidental, part of a fast-paced hockey play, or a reckless play that rises to criminality.

“I can’t say anything on it,” Murphy said.

Added fourth-liner Boris Katchouk: “I really don’t know the answer.”

They and other Hawks told the Chicago Tribune players know there’s a line and when it’s crossed, even if it’s not explicitly spelled out.

“There’s definitely a code but it’s not written,” Katchouk said. “And we all try to protect each other in certain situations, and it’s just a really unfortunate incident that happened.”

Murphy agreed.

“There’s definitely a code,” he said. “I mean, guys know. Hockey’s a weird game where you are fighting and playing physical and technically in a fight — your intent is to hit the guy in the face, which is inadvertently trying to hurt him — but you’re not ever going into a game thinking you hope to injure anyone, or … hope to hurt or really cause pain to anyone.

“It’s more just trying to outman a guy as far as physically that’s going to give you an advantage to win the game. Whether that’s just tiring a guy out, maybe guys showing intimidation — there’s been enforcers in the game that have shown that. And even those enforcers, I don’t believe that they have intent to cause criminal pain to guys. …

“It is unfortunate that things can inadvertently happen. But it almost seems like when the law steps in the cases I’ve seen in the NHL, it’s more when there is a very obvious intent to injure and have intensity of violence.”

In October 2000, former Boston Bruin defenseman Marty McSorley was found guilty of criminal assault for slamming his hockey stick into Vancouver Canucks Donald Brashear in the head, giving him a severe concussion, during a game in February.

In December 2004, then-Canucks player Todd Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault after punching Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind and driving his face into the ice during a game in March. Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae among other injuries.

Hawks coach Luke Richardson was relatively unharmed in January 1988 when then-Minnesota North Stars forward Dino Ciccarelli repeatedly whacked Richardson in the head with a stick. Richardson was rookie defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ciccarelli was sentenced to a day in jail and fined $1,000, and Toronto Judge Sidney Harris said at sentencing: “It is time now (that) a message go out from the courts that violence in a hockey game or in any other circumstances is not acceptable in our society.”

Richardson didn’t rehash the incident after practice Wednesday at Fifth Third Arena, but he said his staff talks with players about the boundaries of their play.

“Things happen quick out there, but you’re still responsible for your own actions, whatever you do in life, on and off the ice,” he said.

Richardson said players try to stick up for teammates or make a play, but they have to be disciplined.

“There are lines you can’t cross, whether it’s in life or just in our game,” he said. “There are rules and people push those rules, (push) boundaries sometimes, but you have to be very careful, not only for putting your team in a tough spot but there are safety issues.

“Hockey’s a fast sport and there’s danger out there, not just with skate cuts but around the boards, and the league’s trying to do a good job of implementing rules for that. But sometimes it happens so quick.”

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