NOTTINGHAM, England — Kirsty Charles always takes a peek when she spots a Nottingham Panthers' team-branded Fiat around town.
She wants to see which one of the players is driving.
"You do get a bit excited when you see a Panthers car," she said. "The Panthers' cars are quite little, the brand-new cars, and when you see four big hockey guys in them... when they're all scotched in there, it's funny."
Life as an import hockey player in the UK can be an adventure. The salaries aren't great, but the lifestyle and perks are pretty good. They get free use of a car and rent-free housing. There's plenty of golfing and Premier League soccer available. Quick trips to European cities are doable.
For these mostly Canadian and American players, the NHL is probably not in their future. They are instead in one of Europe's many professional leagues that are far more likely to have rosters filled with experienced, talented players but short on those who made a stop in the best league in the world.
They are nonetheless mini-celebrities around the 10-team Elite Ice Hockey League and they can get a jump on their post-playing career by earning a master's degree tuition-free through partnerships teams have with local universities.
Adam Johnson was enjoying a typical import experience — living with his fiancée, Ryan Wolfe, and studying at Loughborough Business School — before Nottingham's Oct. 28 game against the Sheffield Steelers.
More than 8,000 fans attended the Saturday night game that turned tragic in the second period when the left skate of Steelers defenseman Matt Petgrave cut Johnson's throat during a collision on the ice. The native of Hibbing, Minnesota, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. An arrest has been made on suspicion of manslaughter and hockey overseers across the sport are looking more closely at improving safety.
The 29-year-old Johnson appeared in 13 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019. Following his death, some wondered if he had wound up in a rough-and-tumble league where skill and technique are afterthoughts.
The EIHL is definitely evolving — there is far less fighting than in years past, league statistics show, and it provides a good foundation for British talent.
"You look at the (British) national team now, the majority of the guys on the team play in the Elite League," said Liam Kirk, who was playing for Sheffield in 2018 when he was drafted by the Arizona Coyotes.
Kirk, who now plays in the Czech Republic, said the EIHL today is "more skilled, fast-paced and you see a lot of good players in the league that have experience and have played at good levels in Europe and North America."
Johnson was in that category. In 12 games for the Panthers, the forward had seven goals and four assists.
"On the hockey side, he made people around him better," Panthers chief executive Omar Pacha said. "His hockey CV spoke for itself."
Players are typically on 36-week contracts earning after-tax salaries of between 400 pounds ($500) to 1,500 pounds ($1,885) per week, said retired forward Chris Auger, who played one season for the Fife Flyers in Scotland and two for the Manchester Storm.
A player earning 800 pounds per week today is making $36,500 for the season. The perks make it worthwhile. Players can find cheap airline tickets to places like Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam and the Canary Islands.
"I had a great experience," Auger said. "I would say for somebody who the NHL is not in your future or a high league, that this is a great way to gain life experience, to meet some incredible people, make decent money and travel."
Last year, Johnson played in the Bavarian city of Augsburg and Wolfe posted Instagram photos of the pair at Oktoberfest in Munich. She had written "we're loving it so far" of their time in Nottingham.
Auger recalled Manchester United defender Victor Lindelöf skating with the team during a practice. The Swede then hosted Storm players at Old Trafford for one of the club's games.
Fans are passionate in a sport that fights for its place among soccer, rugby and cricket. They love how accessible hockey players are compared to insulated soccer stars. One fan in Wales even penned a romance novel entitled "The Import Slot."
The big benefit, though, is the opportunity to get a master's degree. During his final season in Manchester, Auger completed a one-year MBA program at the University of Salford. After morning practice, it was off to afternoon classes. Books, laptop and parking were his only school expenses.
"It kind of springboarded me into my career and what I'm doing now," said Auger, who played four seasons at UMass-Lowell after being selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the sixth round of the 2006 NHL draft. "It was an incredible opportunity."
The Belleville, Ontario, native retired after the 2018-19 season and bought a restaurant equipment company in his hometown.
Downsides include long game-day bus rides and holidays away from family. Contracts are not guaranteed; break team rules and you can get released. It's also hard to get a work visa for spouses or girlfriends.
Petgrave, a 31-year-old Canadian, hasn't played since the Oct. 28 game and the Steelers quietly signed another defenseman. The club has declined to comment on Petgrave and no charges have been filed in Johnson's death.
In Sheffield, Petgrave's team often hangs out at Firepit Rocks but lately they have kept a low profile.
"Before you'd pretty much have the whole team, like 20 of them," said Markuss Jansons, a chef at the downtown restaurant. "Now, it's a lot less. It's not the same."
Jansons, a 20-year-old college student who plays for one of Sheffield's development teams, said Petgrave is well-liked and quiet.
Petgrave's 129 penalty minutes led the league last season, but in past years some players were well into the 200s. He also was Sheffield's co-leader in points in the regular season last year with nine goals and 39 assists. He was given 32 minutes in penalties for verbal abuse of an official in an October 2022 game. A month later, he was fined and warned for similar actions. He had a one-game suspension for a "a slew-footing incident" in the AHL in 2018.
Nottingham teammate Westin Michaud defended Petgrave, posting on social media that it was "clear to me his actions were unintentional." The post has since been removed. Nottingham defenseman Victor Björkung, told a Swedish newspaper there "isn't a chance that it's deliberate." Björkung had played the pass to Johnson and said he was traumatized by what he saw. He has left the team.
Auger and Petgrave were teammates with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL.
"He was an offensive defenseman, he skated really well," Auger said. "My experience with Matt was very, very positive. He was a great person. He was a great teammate when he came to us."
Pacha, at a service in Johnson's hometown, called him the "best player on the team" but with "zero ego." Some import players are demanding "but not Adam. He kept saying 'Omar, I'm low maintenance, don't worry about me.'"
Kirsty Charles, the Panthers fan, still can't believe Johnson is gone. They shared an elevator the day before the Sheffield game.
"He was genuinely a really lovely guy," she said.
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