Captain Cunningham still valuable part of Roadrunners hockey

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Courtesy Tucson Roadrunners | The Daily Wildcat

Craig Cunningham receiving a painted portrait of him in a Tucson Roadrunners jersey on March 25. Cunningham's career came to an end Nov. 19, 2016, after collapsing on the ice.

The Tucson Roadrunners honored Tucson Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham Saturday night in a pregame ceremony in the Tucson Convention Center. Cunningham went into cardiac arrest earlier this season, seconds before the puck dropped in a matchup with the Manitoba Moose.

Fans left the arena that night after the game was postponed not knowing if their captain was going to make it through the night. The Roadrunners’ games the following week were cancelled while people continued to ask questions about Cunningham.

On Nov. 19, 2016, seconds before the start of a minor-league hockey game, Craig Cunningham collapsed on the ice and the training staff quickly jumped into action. Luckily for Cunningham, there were firefighters attending the game who were set to play the national anthem with bagpipes. The Roadrunner trainers were soon on the ice as well. When the firefighters joined them, they began to give CPR to Cunningham in front of everyone at the arena. Cunningham was taken off the ice on a stretcher, put in an ambulance and sent to St. Mary’s Hospital.

Eighty-three minutes of CPR was performed on Cunningham between it all and the situation began to look bleak. The only thing keeping Cunningham alive was a ventilator, which forced his body to breath. Doctor Zain Khalpey was forced to use a new, experimental surgery to save Cunningham’s life called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, better known as ECMO. The ECMO acted as an external heart and lungs for Cunningham until he was ready to make his recovery about a month after collapsing on the ice. Cunningham was transferred to Banner Medical Center, where his condition continued to worsen. Eventually Cunningham’s heart began to respond, which was a very positive sign for Cunningham and all the supporting people in the hockey world.

Courtesy Tucson Roadrunners | The Daily Wildcat

Craig Cunningham making his way the ice on Nov. 4, 2016, in a game against the Ontario Reign. Cunningham remains the captain for the Roadrunners, despite not playing anymore.

Doctor George Haloftis, one of the doctors that worked to save Cunningham’s life and a season ticket holder of the Tucson Roadrunners, shared his thoughts on Cunningham going to the hospital at a press conference prior to the game. 

“I had to actually go out there and prepare her [Cunningham’s mother] that he could die that night,” Haloftis said. “It was really just an emotional experience, having all those hockey players there; I just knew that we had to do everything we could to get him stabilized and get him over to Banner UMC. I had Craig at St. Mary’s with me for about nine hours, and I didn’t think I would be sitting here next to him right now. What he has been through is incredible; he is a fighter; I saw him fighting for his life for nine hours in that hospital, and we were just there to help him fight.”

After seeing Cunningham go down, fans from all over the country and world began sending their prayers toward Cunningham and the Tucson Roadrunners organization. The Roadrunners started #cunnycan, which allowed people to post and start a conversation about Cunningham, as well as send their prayers and best wishes. Not only did the Roadrunners have wristbands created for the occasion, but they also had a card that stood close to five feet high, which was signed by fans in attendance following the game, as well as by those who stopped by the Roadrunner offices.

Once Cunningham was stabilized, there were talks about his release from UMC about whether he would be able to go home in late December. There was no solid evidence as to what caused Cunningham’s heart to go into cardiac arrest; Doctor Khalpey said he does not know for sure what caused the situation.

Hopes were high that Cunningham would be able to return home before Christmas, on Dec. 24, 2016, The doctors were forced to perform a partial amputation on Cunningham’s leg. This surgery was done to prevent the spread of infection, which could affect his still-weak heart.

Cunningham continues to remain positive on the situation. He continues to attend all the home games and is still the captain for the Roadrunners.

“It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least, dealing with not only the heart but the leg amputation,” Cunningham said. “The rest of my health took a little beating when I was down.”

A very touching ceremony followed the press conference, honoring Cunningham. A #cunnydid video played on the screen at the Tucson Convention Center that showed highlights from Cunningham’s career and clips of former teammates and friends speaking about Craig and what kind of player he was.

“Few people are ever asked to carry the burden that Craig was asked to carry, and even fewer could actually do it,” said Arizona Coyotes captain and friend of Cunningham’s, Shane Doan. “He is an amazing man that I am so proud to be able to call my friend. [Speaking to Cunningham] Your spirit has been inspiring to all of us. I’m sure everyone in this building is better to know you and know your story to see the determination and the fight that you have.”

Cunningham’s mother joined him on the ice and gave a very heartfelt thank you to all the people in the arena and to everyone who worked on Craig to restore his health. Cunningham was presented an AHL all-star jersey with his name and number signed by every player that played at the game, as well as a framed picture of every all-star that wore Cunningham’s number 14 for the warm ups. Cunningham was presented a painting that showed him in a roadrunner uniform preparing to play in a game.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, every player on the visiting San Jose Barracuda skated up to Cunningham to shake his hand. This was followed by the referees who were officiating the game Saturday night.

Fortunately for Cunningham and all the fans in Tucson, his journey is far from over. Cunningham continues to be at every game to support his teammates as they go against some of the toughest teams in the AHL. The Roadrunners go into every game not only representing Tucson but their captain, who had the toughest fight of his life this year, Craig Cunningham.


Follow Tanner Harris on Twitter.



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