Matt Petgrave’s former GM comes to player’s defence following death of Adam Johnson

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Cary Kaplan knows Matt Petgrave — the person and the player.

The defenceman’s parents used to come to his games when he was still chasing a dream with the Brampton Beast in the third-tier ECHL for parts of four seasons.

Kaplan had a front-row seat as the club’s general manager.

“Matt was a leader on the team, community ambassador, very positive influence,” he said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “Just an overall good human being.”

Petgrave has also endured a nightmare stretch following an incident that shook the hockey world.

The 31-year-old Sheffield Steelers defenceman is the player whose skate cut the neck of Nottingham Panthers forward Adam Johnson last month during an Elite Ice Hockey League game in England. The 29-year-old American later died in hospital.

A man arrested Tuesday on suspicion of manslaughter was released on bail Wednesday without charge. Police in the United Kingdom can hold an individual for up to 24 hours without laying a charge, but can apply to hold them up to 96 hours if they are suspected of a serious crime.

The Panthers said in a statement on social media Johnson died tragically following a “freak accident” in the aftermath of the Oct. 28 incident.

“Anybody suggesting otherwise either doesn’t understand hockey or wasn’t close enough to the situation,” Kaplan said Wednesday. “The most telling thing is the players from Nottingham — several of them that were right there and could see it — came out in support of Matt Petgrave and said it was an obvious accident.”

Kaplan said the reality is hockey can be a dangerous game and called the arrest related to the case “a slippery slope” in sports.

“Somebody could be hit against the boards and fall the wrong way or be in a fight and hit their head on the ice and die,” he said. “It’s a tragic accident for one family.

“There’s some people that are trying to make this a tragedy for two.”

Kaplan hasn’t spoken to Petgrave directly, but he’s been in touch with ex-coaches who have conversed with the player. 

“Matt Petgrave’s going to deal with this his whole life, and all indications are it’s been devastating for him,” Kaplan said. “The suggestions of manslaughter … is absurd.”

“It’s a tragedy,” he added. “Matt Petgrave had no ill intent. Does that mean he wanted to have a bodycheck or something hockey-related? Of course. But it’s the suggestions that the intentions were far worse than that.”

Petgrave made it as high as the American Hockey League — one rung below the NHL — but started his third season in Europe, and second with Sheffield, in September.

“An offensive defenceman,” Kaplan said of Petgrave, who tied for the Steelers team lead with 48 points in 54 games in 2022-23. “Fun to watch. He’s plays that aggressive style of hockey in a positive way.”

Johnson’s death isn’t the first time authorities have got involved for on-ice actions.

Giacinto (Jim) Boni was charged in Italy with culpable homicide after he slashed Miran Schrott in the chest during a game on Jan. 14, 1992. Schrott died as a result of a cardiac event and Boni pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi are two NHL players in recent history charged in Canada.

McSorley was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon in 2000 for a two-handed stick slash to the head of Donald Brashear. He was sentenced to 18 months probation.

Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault in 2004 for grabbing Steve Moore from behind and sucker punching him. Bertuzzi agreed to a plea deal and was sentenced to one year probation and 80 hours community service.

Kaplan said Petgrave, who is Black, has received “deplorable” abuse on social media, while some mainstream news outlets have suggested there was intent to injure Johnson.

“He’s got insults … some of them are racially motivated,” Kaplan said. “And then there are people suggesting he did awful things, and throwing around words that are totally inappropriate. 

“It was an unbelievable tragedy. People are piling on and suggesting something that is absolutely false — that this was anything but an accident.” 

Kaplan said he didn’t know his former blueliner was involved until news started to filter out of England.

“(Petgrave’s) taking it very, very hard,” he said. “It’s not anything you expect to happen when you’re playing hockey.”

-With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on X.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect spelling of Petgrave’s last name in the lead paragraph.

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