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Tucson Roadrunners: Craig Cunningham’s resolve allows for miraculous recovery

After his heart stopped on the ice, Tucson’s captain is about to embark on another step on his road to recovery

Craig Cunningham, his mother, and his medical staff pose for pictures at Banner-UMC Tucson
Jason Bartel

“I don’t remember anything from that whole day actually. The last thing I remember was playing the weekend before.”

Tucson Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham may not be able to recall the night his heart stopped on the Tucson Convention Center ice, but everyone in the hockey and Tucson communities will forever.

“I remember it pretty clearly,” defenseman Jarred Tinordi said on Wednesday. “We were all right there. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life, and I’ve never been more terrified than in that moment. It’s kind of hard to describe what you feel as you watch something like that happen.”

The complete story of the immediate aftermath is dramatic and soul-shaking, and one that still doesn’t have all of the answers, like why it happened. All doctors can say definitively is that Cunningham suffered cardiac arrest caused by ventricular fibrillation.

Just over a month later, Cunningham was wheeled into a conference room at Banner-University Medical Center, where he spoke publicly for the first time since that traumatic night.

At that press conference, Tucson’s captain admitted that he’ll probably never be able to return to the professional level that he was playing at before this occurred.

“As of right now, I think I’m probably done,” Cunningham said through a gritty smile. “But we’ll see when I get to rehab and how it goes. I don’t know that I’ll ever get back to playing pro, but anything can happen.”

“Tucson’s a great city and I wish I could’ve enjoyed it a little more.”

“Craig was out of it for a long time,” Tinordi continued. “That was probably the toughest moment for him once he comes to a realization of what he’s been through and what that means for the rest of his life.”

Cunningham still doesn’t have full usage of his left leg due to the lack of perfusion during the cardiac arrest. The cardiothoracic surgeon behind it all explained that he thinks Cunningham has the ability to regain use of that limb when he is discharged from Banner-UMC later this week and taken to a rehab facility.

“I think it’s early to say,” Dr. Zain Khalpey told me of the expected recovery. “I think we’ve got great perfusion to the leg, and I think that we’re just working on his rehabilitation of that leg.”

“For him, that’s not an obstacle, as you can see,” Dr. Khalpey continued. “I mean, that guy can do anything he wants to and more. He’s a very powerful chap with a very strong heart and a very loving family, and for us to be part of their lives was amazing.”

It’s been a tough month for everyone around the team, but Cunningham’s attitude through it all has not only allowed him to pull through and still be alive today, but gave his teammates a positive outlook on it as well.

“When you see how positive he is every time you see him, it’s hard for you to be upset you know,” forward Tyler Gaudet explained. “He brings a light to the room, and it’s exciting to see him every time.”

“One thing that epitomizes everything is that when I first spoke to him, when he was coming around and we were getting around to getting him off the ventilator and everything, I said ‘You’re going to have a tough time, understood?’,” Dr. Khalpey said. “And he said ‘Bring it on’.”

“I think that epitomizes who he is.”

“That’s the epitome of Cunny right there,” Arizona Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett echoed. “Great to see he’s doing well.”

Moving forward, Cunningham will remain the team’s captain, and it’s likely that his jersey will hang just outside the locker room like it has for the past month.

“It’s a miracle,” Tippett added. “And it couldn’t happen to a better guy. To be a great teammate, you have to be a good friend. You’re just a good guy in the dressing room, you know your role on the team, you do it to the max, and he’s one of those guys that’s probably considered an overachiever.”

“He just proved everybody wrong.”