Neal Pionk had his world turned upside down when Adam Johnson died.
Johnson, 29, died last Saturday after a freak accident during a game in England where an opponent's skate blade sliced his neck. Johnson was one of Pionk’s closest friends and served as a groomsman at the Winnipeg Jets defenseman’s wedding two years ago.
Pionk detailed the depths of his grief in an interview with Winnipeg Free Press reporter Mike McIntyre.
“The first three days I didn’t know I could cry so much,” Pionk told The Free Press. “The last couple days… but some of them are good tears, too, because we’ve been sharing some really good stories and that’s what it’s all about.”
Pionk and Johnson played two seasons together in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers before playing another two years of NCAA hockey together at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“We played four years together, we lived together for probably six years,” Pionk explained. “On top of that, we golf together every summer, we fish together. His family is like family to me.”
Pionk isn’t the only member of the Jets organization with a direct connection to Johnson. Alex Iafallo played with the two in college, as did Dominic Toninato, who currently plays on the Jets’ AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. Gabriel Vilardi and Rasmus Kupari played with Johnson on the Ontario Reign, too.
“It’s been really good to have those guys, because Al and I have been sitting by each other on the bus every day and talk, and we share pictures and videos, share memories and stories. It’s been really helpful,” said Pionk.
Per McIntyre, after the Jets’ Saturday matinee against the Arizona Coyotes, Winnipeg will be chartering Pionk, Iafallo, Toninato and fellow Minnesotans Dylan Samberg and Nate Schmidt to Johnson’s home state for the funeral and celebration of life, which takes place on Sunday and Monday. Pionk is slated to speak at Monday’s event.
“I’m glad we’re on the road and being around the guys. Middle of a shift you probably don’t think about it. Playing cards on the plane you don’t think about it. But when you get moments of silence to yourself, that’s literally all you think about,” Pionk said.