The expression that swept across Craig Cunningham’s face was as difficult to witness as it was to express. The experience for Cunningham is both a challenge and a path of acceptance.
By now, most know his story, his journey and hope.
Cunningham nearly died on the night of Nov. 19th. The 26-year-old right winger suffered cardiac arrest while warming up on the ice before a game between his Tucson Roadrunners, the AHL affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes, and the Manitoba Moose in the Tucson Arena. While Cunningham was on the ice, medical personnel on site and later at St. Mary’s Hospital and Banner-University Medical Center worked feverishly to save his life.
Because his heart condition was found to manifest in others part of his body, doctors eventually amputated part of his right leg and a hockey career, which began with a fourth-round selection by the Boston Bruins in the 2010 draft, ended with an abrupt retirement.
At the start of the season, Cunningham was named captain of the Roadrunners and was the club’s leading scorer with 13 points in 11 games. He had the distinction of scoring the first goal in Tucson franchise history.
Then, the near-fatal collapse.
After months of close medical attention and rehabilitation, Cunningham is on his way to a strong recovery. One event that showcased his recovery was a special event. That occurred just before the Coyotes closed their season last Saturday at home against the Minnesota Wild. Cunningham was invited to drop the ceremonial first puck and he reacted as any competitive hockey player would.
“It’s been a long journey and I was hoping the next time I walked into his building, I would have my equipment bag,” Cunningham told The Hockey Writers. “The Coyotes’ organization have given a tremendous amount of support to me. They have just been there for me and it’s pretty cool they have me drop the puck.”
While Cunningham skated in parts of three NHL season with Boston and Arizona, he was considered one of the building blocks of the Tucson franchise. After relocating its AHL affiliate from Springfield, Mass. last season, the Coyotes desire was to bring its top minor league club closer the geographic proximity of Phoenix. With a cadre of promising talent, the organization tapped Cunningham to captain the first AHL franchise in Arizona and provide leadership.
Cunningham responded with that quick start and leadership for the Roadrunners
Just after he hit the ice for pre-game warm-ups on that fateful November night, Cunningham suffered from chest convulsions and the medical staff on site immediately began to apply chest compressions. When little progress was detected by the medical team on site, Cunningham was quickly rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson. At that facility, Cunningham’s condition was viewed as more desperate than first realized. He was then transferred to Banner-University Medical Center where doctors performed ECMO, or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. That’s a specialized process that circulates blood and oxygen through the body. ECMO is considered as a final measure to restart the heart and in most cases, a result of his procedure signals an end-of-life.
Praise For Medical Staff
Cunningham’s recovery is nothing short of a miracle and that was acknowledged just before he dropped the puck last Saturday.
“Doctors have told me that everything has come along very quickly and smoothly,” said Cunningham. “They really still don’t know the cause of the accident or what happened. All my tests are normal and they say I’m moving along at a really good pace. Everything is good and no negative signs. I probably had about 1,000 blood tests in the last few months, everything has come up smooth and I continue to work on my recovery.”
Though retired, the Coyotes reached out to Cunningham with an offer to join the organization. Plans call for the native of Trail, B. C. to head to Calgary and begin scouting for the team. Going forward, Cunningham said, “this is an opportunity to stay in the game. At this point, I’m not sure what my future holds.”
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.