How the Racist Treatment of Matt Petgrave Hurts Black Hockey Players

By Isi Frank Ativie

Oct. 28, 2023, is now an infamous day that hockey fans and players from all over the globe will never forget. That date also marks a horrific moment that the hockey world wished had not occurred. The Nottingham Panthers, a professional team 110 miles northwest of London, played the Sheffield Steelers at Utilita Arena. Both teams compete in the Elite Ice Hockey League. The Steelers were leading 2-1 with 6:13 left in the second period when the unthinkable took place that would change the lives of two players. 

Nottingham Panther forward Adam Johnson was a White Minnesota native who played 13 games in the National Hockey League for the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, after his short stint in the NHL, he has played in four minor and semi-professional leagues, including the American Hockey League, Sweden Hockey League, Deutsche Eishockey Liga, and the EIHL. By the time Nottingham faced Sheffield, it was Johnson’s first season with the Panthers since he signed with them in August. 

By Oct. 28, the former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher scored seven points in his first seven games with the Panthers. At that exact moment, with over six minutes to go in the second period, Johnson carried the puck with his stick through the left side of the center ice of the rink. When he crossed the opponent’s blue line to make a play, he was immediately struck in the neck by an opposing player’s left skate blade. 

The opponent who perpetrated that frightening act was 31-year-old Matt Petgrave, a Black player from Toronto who fashioned himself as a physical player and enforcer. Prior to his incident with Johnson, Petgrave had also played in multiple professional hockey leagues after completing his collegiate career at the University of New Brunswick in 2017. The 6-1 undrafted defenseman endured seven seasons of playing in the East Coast Hockey League, American Hockey League, Slovak Extraliga and Czech Extraliga before joining the Steelers last year.

Matt Petgrave and the Play That Killed Adam Johnson


Matt Petgrave and Adam Johnson (Photos,

Petgrave was even the most penalized player in the league during his first year with Sheffield (129 penalty minutes). During that particular game against Nottingham, he was hoping to set the tone for his team by bringing a lot of physicality, especially since the Steelers were down by a goal in the middle of the game. Petgrave was trying to lead the team by example to generate momentum for them to play aggressively defensively and score goals. This is typically the role of hockey players who are considered enforcers.

On that controversial play, he was preparing to hit Johnson but lost his balance as soon as he made contact. 

Both players fell on the ice after making contact, and Petgrave was able to get back up a few seconds later. Unfortunately for Johnson, he attempted to get up immediately but fell back down. He luckily managed to get up on the second try but was holding his neck due to the massive cut, which bled profusely. As soon as he got up, Johnson was helped by one of the referees and a teammate. There was a massive blood stain on the front of his jersey. He attempted to skate off the ice but collapsed once again. Johnson was rushed to Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital. However, he was pronounced dead at the age of 29. 

Petgrave was later arrested and charged with suspicion of manslaughter on Nov. 14 but was eventually released a day later on bail. 

Since then, hockey fans from all over the world have racially attacked Petgrave and automatically accused him of being the perpetrator of this horrible accident. 

Matt Petgrave Racist Tweet

After all, it appeared to be an accident, whether others believed it or not. Despite establishing a reputation for recording a myriad of fighting major penalties and delivering hard body checks, Petgrave, by all means, did not wake up on the morning of Oct. 28 and say, “I’m going to kill Adam Johnson.” In fact, that’s not every hockey player’s intent while playing the game. Although they engage in a series of trash-talking, which includes threatening to bring physical harm to their opponents, murdering a player is never the objective. 

The Potential Fallout for Black Hockey Players

Lately, hockey fans and players have racially slammed Petgrave for this accident. Many are depicting him as if he’s the most dangerous and notorious Black man in the sport. 

I am fearful of the fact that this accident will stigmatize all Black players as potential murderers and menaces.

Professional Black players have worked tremendously hard to earn their right to play with Whites at the elite levels of hockey for almost eight decades, especially after Willie O’Ree arrived in the NHL in 1958. 

There was a relatively big emergence of Black NHL enforcers during the 1990s that included huge gladiators such as Georges Laraque, Peter Worrell, Donald Brashear, Rumun Ndur, Sandy McCarthy and Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre. As of now, Ryan Reaves is the most notable Black enforcer in the NHL. 

Those players, including Reaves, have put instant fear and intimidation into their opposition, yet none have endangered the lives of their opponents on the ice.

Unfortunately for Brashear, he was slashed in the head by former white NHL enforcer Marty McSorley during a 2000 game between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. Brashear lay on the ice unconsciously with a grade III concussion, and McSorley was eventually thrown out of the game. He was later charged with assault with a weapon and served 18 months of probation. McSorley was also suspended for the remainder of the 1999-2000 season.

Many sports critics believe that Blacks aren’t intelligent enough to play a fair and good game of hockey. A lot of ignorant people tend to think that they’re only capable of fighting or physically punishing their opponents. 

According to blogger Hockey Graphs’ blog Racial Bias Drafting and Development: The NHL’s Black Quarterback Problem, “Indeed, Black players were historically more likely to be used in checking and enforcer roles and have been more likely to remain in those roles even as the game has trended towards skill over brawn. It is possible that over time, the few Black players that advanced up the prospect pipeline were stereotyped into roles that emphasized toughness and athleticism over skill and hockey I.Q.”

That is absolutely far from the actual truth. There are Black players who are offensively talented with exceptional skills. Jarome Iginla, Dustin Byfuglien and P.K. Subban were great examples of talented Black NHL players of their generation. Others include current NHLers like Seth Jones, Anthony Duclair, Evander Kane, Kyle Okposo, K’Andre Miller, and Darnell Nurse. Jones, Duclair, Kane, and Okposo have already played in NHL all-star games during their careers.

Even Petgrave made an all-star appearance in the East Coast Hockey League during the 2018-19 season and was eventually named to their first-all-star team the following season when he recorded 33 points in 41 games. So, for those who strongly believe he is a typical goon, I find that hard to accept. 

A History of Hockey Tragedies and a Sad Double Standard

The Johnson tragedy could’ve happened to any player in the sport, and a few instances were quite similar to that accident. Former NHL goaltender Clint Malarchuk was severely cut in the throat by opposing player Steve Tuttle in 1989. Former forward Richard Zednik had this happen to him 19 years later by his teammate Olli Jokinen, who fell on the ice while his skate slit Zednik’s throat. Maralchuk and Zednik are White, and so are those players who inadvertently slashed them. If any of those victims had died from their injuries, the public could easily see that those matters were coincidental misfortunes. But if the players who cut them were Black, they would likely be vilified as troublesome thugs who don’t deserve to play hockey despite those scenarios being accidental. 

Over the years, hockey players have lost their lives due to tragic and unlikely acts caused by opponents before Johnson’s death. In 1968, former NHLer Bill Masterton (who was White) was checked into the boards by two other White opponents, Larry Cahan and Ron Harris, which ultimately led him to lose consciousness. He died 30 hours later. Unlike Johnson, Masterton wasn’t wearing a helmet. Harris and Cahan were never charged with Masterton’s death. Prior to the incident, people speculated that Masterton had a bruise on his brain. 

Palle Schultz, a player from overseas, was accidentally struck in the head by an opponent during a 1984 game in Denmark and died six days later. Here is a list of deaths of other White players that were either caused by White opponents and teammates or were accidents:

  • Ludek Cajka – Feb. 14, 1990: Suffered severe spinal cord injuries after colliding with an opponent into the boards on Jan. 6. 
  • Miran Schrott – Jan. 14, 1992: Struck in the chest by the end of an opponent’s stick and went into cardiac arrest. Jim Boni eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and paid restitution to Schrott’s family.
  • Bengt Akerblom – Oct. 15, 1995: Neck was cut by a teammate’s skate. 
  • Graham Christie – Nov. 25, 1997: Blocked a shot with his chest.
  • Jaxon Logan – Jan. 21, 2005: Blocked a shot with his chest.
  • Don Sanderson – Jan. 2, 2009: Sustained horrific head injury after a fight during a Dec. 12 game.
  • Maxim Koposov – Feb. 17, 2012: Struck by a puck in the chest. 
  • Alexander Orekhov – Feb. 2, 2016: Struck by a puck in the neck. 

I believe that Johnson’s fatal incident could’ve happened to any player, but Petgrave sadly became the scapegoat. 

I understand that his attempt to deliver a hit was unethical. But other players have delivered dangerous hits to their opponents and have done so for many years, especially in the NHL. I also believe this moment will force all hockey leagues, including professional ones, to eliminate dirty playing styles. 

Hockey leagues have considered donning neckguards for safety purposes, which is a smart start. Most of all, what if the situation was reversed? If Petgrave had been killed by Johnson’s skateblade, do you believe he would have gotten arrested and charged with manslaughter, too?


About Post Author


From the Web

Skip to content