On November 19, 2016, tragedy struck during the Tucson Roadrunners’ game (Arizona’s AHL affiliate) against the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate). Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham fell to the ice unconscious after the national anthem was performed.
During the days that followed, Cunningham’s teammates did not know if he would live or die. But after a miraculous five-month recovery, which included having part of his left leg amputated, Cunningham walked out from the tunnel Saturday night to drop the puck before the Arizona Coyotes’ final game of the season.
It was a heartwarming conclusion to a story that could have ended much, much worse.
Back in November, Cunningham’s heart suddenly stopped due to, what doctors learned later, was a rapid, inadequate heartbeat (acute cardiac arrest caused by ventricular fibrillation). Cunningham fell to the ice unconscious and convulsed. Medics immediately attended to Cunningham and cut away his jersey as he lied on his back, performing chest compressions to keep him alive.
Former NHL player Claude Lemieux was at the game that night, watching his son Brendan play. Lemieux told TSN that had never seen or experienced anything quite like that before.
“It was very painful to watch,” Lemieux said. “I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s very upsetting.”
Cunningham went through 85 minutes of aggressive CPR as he was moved off the ice and into an ambulance. A team of doctors performed an emergency surgery using a device called an ECMO, or an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine. This machine saved Cunningham’s life.
The ECMO procedure, explained by Arizona Daily Star’s Jon Gold, seems complex, but the doctors say it is simple in explanation.
Cunningham’s heart was still in ventricular fibrillation, and because his lungs were bleeding, his blood was getting little oxygen. The blood in his heart at that point, Khalpey said, was black. Khalpey needed to circumvent the body’s natural blood pumping, using the ECMO machine to act as a temporary heart and lung, with the cannulas draining the side of Cunningham’s heart, the blood passing through a pump which pushed it into an artificial lung, which moved it back through the heart’s arterial side with fully oxygenated blood.
Cunningham spent the next few days in critical but stable condition. Cunningham’s Roadrunners teammates visited him constantly at the hospital.
“I can’t even imagine the thoughts going through their minds so we’re always bringing them food, doing what we can because they’re probably not leaving the hospital too often,” Roadrunners forward Christian Fischer said to arizonasports.com’s Craig Morgan. “We get to go see Craig. His mom lets us in the room. Just holding his hand and being able to pray with him is helpful. It’s pretty tough but it’s all we can do right now. It’s out of our control. We’re all praying for him and thinking about him every night.”
Cunningham’s heart crashed once more and he required numerous surgeries over the following weeks. On Christmas Eve, Cunningham’s leg was amputated due to infection, ending his hockey career forever.
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) December 21, 2016
Weeks later, Cunningham was healthy enough to return home with a new prosthetic leg and since then things have reverted to a new normal.
Recently, Cunningham spoke to ESPN’s Craig Custance and told the reporter that doesn’t want the amputation to define his story.
“Every time I think about how I can’t play anymore, I just think back to [the fact that] I’m lucky I’m not 10 feet under,” Cunningham said to Custance. “If I have to sacrifice playing hockey to be alive — and it’s a tough pill to swallow for sure, it’s been my whole life since I was four years old — it’s time for me to move on.”
Eight days ago, Cunningham laced up his skates for the first time since his heart suddenly stopped in November. After being wheeled out in a wheelchair, his physical therapists helped him take laps around the ice.
After all, he's a hockey player.
Back at it. pic.twitter.com/QrxdfhRygg
— Tucson Roadrunners (@RoadrunnersAHL) March 31, 2017
He had so much joy in his face.
Inspired, Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun tweeted this to Cunningham.
— Jakob Chychrun (@j_chychrun7) March 31, 2017
On Friday, Cunningham was named the AHL’s 2016-17 recipient of the Fred T. Hunt Award. The award is presented to the AHL player that best exemplifies sportsmanship, determination, and dedication to hockey.
— AHL (@TheAHL) April 7, 2017
To celebrate Cunningham’s recovery, he was invited to drop the puck Saturday night during the Coyotes’ game against the Wild.
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) April 9, 2017
The Coyotes also aired a tribute video to Cunningham where Coyotes captain Shane Doan and Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic complimented the former minor leaguer.
Before the game, Cunningham skated on the ice at Gila River Arena. In just eight days since he first skated, he can balance on his own and even stickhandle.
Craig Cunningham on the ice at Gila River Arena today. Amazing. Inspiring. pic.twitter.com/8PL5bSegsH
— Graham Taylor (@goldencanuck) April 8, 2017
Cunningham beat the odds and now he hopes to still have a career in hockey – just not as a player.
“He will find a way to get there,” Cunningham’s mother said to tucson.com. “I know that. That’s one thing I can say without a tear, without a shake in my voice. Craiger will make it some way, somehow.”
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