Roadrunners captain Cunningham returns to the ice, wins AHL award
Tucson Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham, who scored the first goal in Tucson history, was named the winner of this year’s Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the American Hockey League (AHL) player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.
Cunningham, who appeared in 319 AHL games before suffering a career-ending injury, continues to make progress after having part of his left leg amputated on Christmas Eve.
Two recently posted videos dramatically show that progress. In the first video posted on March 9, Cunningham is shown in a rehabilitation facility walking with his new prosthetic leg.
In an even more remarkable video tweeted March 31 by the Roadrunners, Cunningham is shown ice skating.
Cunningham’s story is now well known, but not many details were available in the hours and even weeks following the medical emergency on Nov. 19 at the Tucson Convention Center prior to a scheduled game against the Manitoba Moose.
The Tucson captain suffered a heart attack on the ice during a pregame warm-up. A cardiac rhythm disturbance caused his heart to stop working — doctors still aren’t sure why this happened.
Cunningham lay motionless on the ice in front of fans, teammates, coaches – and his mother, Heather, who had flown in from Canada to watch the game.
Following on-site emergency procedures, Cunningham was transported to two local hospitals. His heart did not beat for two days as he was tethered to an artificial heart-lung oxygenator machine and later an experimental procedure to decompress his enlarged heart.
He survived the initial surgery.
However, the emergency medical life-saving techniques reduced circulation in Cunningham’s leg and he developed an infection, which resulted in the partial amputation.
Cunningham, 26, has moved forward in his life since then with the support of his family, friends, teammates and fans.
He was the spotlight guest at Craig Cunningham “Cunny Did” Night hosted by the Roadrunners on March 25. Cunningham took part in a special pregame puck drop ceremony with the doctors who saved his life.
“I feel good,” he told the media at a pre-game press conference. “It’s a nice night, not only for me, but for everyone who was involved in my case.”
A special three-minute tribute video was played prior to the ceremonial puck-drop.
Tucson general manager Doug Soetaert said the special night offered a closure for the estimated 4,000 fans in attendance at the Nov. 19 game.
The March 25 game drew a crowd of 5,196 to the TCC.
During the pregame ceremony, Cunningham was presented with an AHL All-Star jersey embroidered with his name and number that was signed by every player who participated in the league’s midseason All-Star Classic.
He was also presented with a framed photograph of every player who wore special jerseys with Cunningham’s No. 14 for pregame warmups at the Jan. 30 game.
A painting of Cunningham in a Roadrunner uniform was also unveiled.
After the ceremony, every member of the visiting San Jose Barracuda skated up to shake hands with Cunningham, as well as the AHL officiating crew that night.
San Jose won the game, 5-2, but the greatest applause was for Cunningham, Tucson’s newest hero.
“There were a lot of emotions for myself, and for all of my teammates I’m sure, and for Cunny and his family,” Roadrunners center Chris Mueller expressed after the game. “It was just awesome to see him standing there happy and in good health and here with us as our captain, still leading us.
“For everything that he went through, his family went through, what our team went through with him, we’re just so happy that he’s able to be here with us, to keep leading us, and to keep being our captain.”
Mueller, along with San Jose left wing John McCarthy, took part in the ceremonial puck drop.
“I just told him that I love him, and that I’m proud of him, and just to keep going,” Mueller recounted. “I wouldn’t ask for any other guy to be my captain, that’s for sure. He’s an unbelievable person on the ice; he’s a great player. But off the ice, he’s 10-times better of a person, a person you want to battle with, a person you want to live your life with, and follow, because he’s a leader. I’m so thankful that he was here and in good health. I’m happy.”
“There were a lot of emotions there,” Tucson winger Eric Selleck admitted. “It was just nice to see him come out and walk out there with a smile. There were a lot of emotions going with his Mom talking, and I know she’s got a big heart, so it was good to see him walk out with her.”
“There were a lot of emotions, and I’m speaking for myself,” Roadrunners head coach Mark Lamb said. “There were a lot of emotions going through my brain, so I can imagine what’s going through the team. It was a great ceremony, it really was.
“When you think about Craig Cunningham, it’s the same thing that everybody says. It’s the heart, it’s the character, it’s the will. Everybody that talks about him says the same thing; he’s just such a character guy, such a great guy, and that’s why he’s at where he is now.”
Cunningham made his post-surgery ice skating debut prior to the team’s morning skate at the Tucson arena on March 31.
The Roadrunner captain is shown with an ice hockey boot attached to his prosthetic leg. He steps from his wheelchair onto the ice with the help of teammate Conor Garland and a physical therapist.
He skates on the ice with his arms interlocked with those providing assistance.
It was the first time Cunningham had laced up his skates and been on the ice since collapsing at the TCC on Nov. 19.
“After all, he’s a hockey player. Back at it …” the Roadrunners tweeted along with photos and the video.
Former NHL player Ray Ferraro, a game analyst for TSN, previously had tweeted a video of Cunningham walking with his prosthetic leg.
“Here’s the most awesome thing I’ve seen in awhile,” Ferraro tweeted. “ My buddy Craig Cunningham is making amazing progress in his rehab. This kid is a winner.”
Dr. George Haloftis, one of the doctors who helped save Cunningham’s life, said he’s never seen the type of resiliency in a patient as that possessed by Cunningham.
“What he has been through is incredible,” Haloftis said at the March 25 press conference. “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.”
Cunningham’s story is not over, but could be only beginning.
He will also be honored as part of the NHL Arizona Coyotes Fan Appreciation Night on Saturday, April 8, when he will be involved in another ceremonial pregame puck drop.
According to a Coyotes press release, fans will have the opportunity to congratulate Cunningham on the tremendous courage, willpower and perseverance he’s demonstrated throughout his rehabilitation.
The Roadrunners are the AHL affiliate of the Coyotes. Cunningham played 29 games for the Coyotes during his brief 63-game NHL career.
According to a media report in the Arizona Daily Star, the Coyotes have offered Cunningham a job within the organization.
“It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least, dealing with not only the heart but the leg amputation,” Cunningham told the media. “The rest of my health took a little beating when I was down.”
His spirits are now back up thanks to all the support he has received from fans in Arizona – and around the world.
Tucson defenseman Kyle Wood was among six players named to the AHL’s 2016-17 All-Rookie Team.
Despite playing defense, the 20-year-old native of Waterloo, Ont., ranks among the Roadrunners’ offensive leaders with 13 goals and 40 points in 63 games. He earned honors as the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for October and tops the league’s rookies with 10 power-play goals and 25 power-play points.
A third-round choice by Colorado in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the six-foot-five, 235-pound Wood represented Tucson at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic. He won the hardest shot skills competition with a blast clocked at 99.3 mph.
He joins Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Casey DeSmith, Bridgeport defenseman Devon Toews, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Jake Guentzel, Stockton Heat forward Mark Jankowski and San Jose forward Daniel O’Regan.
Man of the Year
Tucson defenseman Brandon Burlon is one of 30 players from around the league nominated for this year’s IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award.
The AHL’s annual Man of the Year award is named after the late Yanick Dupre, a former member of the Hershey Bears (1992-96) and AHL All-Star who died in 1997 at the age of 24 following a 16-month battle with leukemia.
Players are selected by their respective clubs for their outstanding contributions to the local community and charitable organizations during the 2016-17 season.
Burlon’s name was often the first found on sign-up sheets for community events and, according to team officials, was always willing to go the extra mile or put in the extra time with fans, season ticket holders, and community and charity groups.
Burlon, 27, helped deliver teddy bears to sick children from Teddy Bear Toss Night, made hospital visits in the cancer and children’s wards at University of Arizona Medical Center, volunteered at the Food Bank of Southern Arizona to help prepare food for distribution to those in need and, among other charitable activities, worked with Tucson-area youth hockey players and more.
Burlon, the first player signed by the Roadrunners back in August, has accumulated three goals and 11 points in 33 games with the Roadrunners this season.
He said he didn’t participate in all the community events simply for recognition. “It’s about taking care of those who take care of you,” he said.
The winner of the 2016-17 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award will be announced at a later date.
On the road again
Tucson was officially eliminated from Calder Cup playoff contention when host Stockton defeated San Diego 5-3 on April 5. The Roadrunners are 26-30-7 on the season and sit in seventh place in the eight-team Pacific Division standings.
The Arizona team now embarks on a five-game, season-ending road trip with stops in Winnipeg (April 7 and April 9), San Jose (April 12 and April 14) and Stockton (April 15). The team still has a shot at finishing above the .500 mark in its maiden season in Tucson.
The Roadrunners finished with a 17-14-3 home ice record and drew 6,022 for its regular season home finale on April 1. It was a fun night for fans despite the 4-1 loss to San Diego.
Tucson averaged 4,054 fans in its inaugural season in the Old Pueblo.
“You know, time flies,” Lamb said. “This has been a great building for us. We’ve got a lot to look forward to next year.”
Mueller leads the Roadrunners in scoring with 15 goals and 58 points in 63 games. He’s followed on the score sheet by rookie right wing Christian Fischer, who has accumulated 19 goals and 43 points in 53 games.
The 19-year-old Fischer has appeared in seven games with the Coyotes this season with three goals to his credit.
Rookie goaltender Adin Hill is 14-14-6 with a 3.15 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
Photos/Phillip Brents, Chris Hook/Tucson Roadrunners
— Phillip Brents