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Hockey will never leave Craig Cunningham

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“I said to him ‘you’re going to have a tough time’ and he understood and said ‘bring it on.’”

Craig Cunningham plays against the Manitoba Moose.
Kate Dibildox

TUCSON – Heather Cunningham has a lot of gratitude right now.

“The doctors have continued to give Craig a chance to recover that exceeds anything that could have been expected,” said Heather Cunningham. “These people are nothing short of a gift to mankind and I will remember the gift that they have given me every time I look at my son. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

It’s been just over a month - 32 days to be exact.

It’s been 32 days since Tucson Roadrunners’ captain Craig Cunningham collapsed on the ice at Tucson Arena.

32 days since the hockey world had to once again come face to face with just how fragile life can be.

32 days since Cunningham’s life changed forever.

On November 19, 2016, the Tucson Roadrunners were set to face off against the Manitoba Moose in what should have been a routine Saturday night AHL game.

No one knew what was about to happen; no one could have. The doctors themselves still aren’t sure.

Waiting for the puck to drop, Cunningham collapsed to the ice. Unbeknownst to his teammates, the nearby staff, and everyone in the arena, he was going into cardiac arrest due to ventricular fibrillation.

For a long time, things were uncertain. They still are, even now. Without the extreme medical response by his doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital and the Banner University Medical Center, though, Cunningham may not have been able to pull through.

Luckily, he did.

Jon Gold of the Tucson Star details all the measures and hard work by the doctors.

On December 21, Cunningham spoke to the media for the first time since his collapse. He was joined by his mother, Heather Cunningham; Doctors Rez Mohaved and Zain Khalpey, and Roadrunners GM Doug Soetart.

Some of his teammates - Chris Mueller, Jarred Tinordi and Tyler Gaudet - stand in the back of the room. Support on this team is never in short supply.

Just over a month removed from the incident, it's still hard to grasp what transpired 32 days ago. It's hard to truly fathom what happened, starting with the collapse itself.

Right place, right time might be one of the best ways to describe why Cunningham had the miraculous recovery he did.

To start - one of the many surgeries that saved Cunningham’s life? It had only been performed two times prior to his incident – all by the same doctor in Tucson.

Cunningham owes a lot to those doctors.

“In the hockey industry, it’s about teamwork, commitment and working hard to achieve a goal,” said Roadrunners GM Doug Soetaert. “I can tell you being a little on the inside from day one, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life with regards to the teamwork that the doctors at both hospitals have put together to save a young man’s life. It’s been an incredible adventure and we’re happy to see Craig sitting at the end of the table.”

Cunningham’s recovery has seemed to most like nothing short of a miracle - and truly, it’s as close as it comes. But what is not to be underestimated is the factor that Cunningham himself brings to this situation.

“One thing that epitomizes everything is when I first spoke to him when he started coming around to it and off the ventilator,” said Dr. Khapley. “I said to him ‘you’re going to have a tough time’ and he understood and said ‘bring it on.’”

In addition to his doctors and family, Cunningham claims that it's been his teammates - both past and present - and other players, across the leagues and across the world, that have helped with his upbeat attitude.

Support has poured in from his current Roadrunners’ teammates, the former teammates he’s had along his hockey journey, and just the hockey community in general as they rally around one of their own.In many ways, season after season, we are reminded that hockey is more than just a game.Hockey can be an escape, a job, a family, a dream.

To hockey players, especially those in the AHL, making the NHL is the ultimate dream; almost an obsession.

Now, while the path for Cunningham may be different, the dream is still the same: to be in the NHL. No one who knows Cunningham doubts that he will make it, it’s more a matter of in what way. That’s not the most pressing matter at the time, though.

Soon, Cunningham will leave the hospital for the first time in more than 32 days, for a local rehabilitation center.

For the first time in what might seem like his whole life, Cunningham is taking a step back from hockey.

He’ll take time to come more to terms with things. He’ll take time to get better, stronger, healthy - but there’s no doubt he’ll be back.

Even the doctors and the medical staff know that. At the end of the press conference Dr. Khapley presented Cunningham with a signed, ribbon-wrapped Sherwood hockey stick.

“You have been inspiring, you have inspired a lot of people here and you brought us really together,” said Dr. Khapley. “You, your mom, your family. Your whole story. So from us, we wanted to say thank you from hearts. About what this meant and how we feel about you. You’re going to keep going on.”

Craig’s smile is wide and bright because in a world of uncertainty one thing is for sure: Craig Cunningham could never leave hockey, and hockey will never leave him.