Roadrunners retire Cunningham’s iconic No. 14 jersey
Craig Cunningham, the Tucson Roadrunners first-ever team captain, doesn’t remember anything that transpired on the ice at Tucson Arena last Nov. 19, 2016 — nor events immediately thereafter — after suffering an acute cardiac arrest following warm-ups prior to an American Hockey League (AHL) game against the visiting Manitoba Moose.
If it wasn’t for emergency aid on the ice, it’s likely that Cunningham would have died there.
As it was, he barely survived additional emergency treatment at a nearby hospital to which he was whisked, and it was there that he underwent a still largely experimental procedure that ultimately saved his life.
Cunningham survived the life-saving procedure, but subsequently lost the lower part of his left leg due to an infection.
The amputation ended his hockey-playing career.
But life didn’t end for him there – he wouldn’t let it.
It still isn’t known why Cunningham, an apparently healthy 26-year old man, suffered the sudden heart attack.
But his miraculous recovery has become celebrated in Tucson, and throughout the entire hockey world.
The AHL team presented Cunningham with the ultimate honor by retiring his No. 14 jersey during ceremonies prior to the team’s Oct. 27 game against the Iowa Wild. The emotional pregame event concluded with the unveiling of a banner emblazoned with “14” hanging from the rafters of the Tucson Arena.
“Everyone goes through different challenges and any time when you think that you got it bad, someone else has it worse,” Cunningham said in an interview with Tucson television station KGUN on the eve of the retirement ceremony.
“The jersey retirement is a great honor, but it’s not just for me, (but) my doctors. It shines a little light on everyone in my family, everyone that supported me through the situation. Obviously, the number is going up in my name, but there’s a ton of people who are going to be here that made it happen.”
During the jersey retirement ceremony, which featured a video tribute to his hockey career, Cunningham was presented with a customized plaque from Tucson general manager Steve Sullivan (pictured) that included the puck from the team’s first-ever goal that he scored in a game in San Diego on Oct. 14, 2016. He also received a custom engraved Tissot watch from the team.
His former teammates presented him with something perhaps even more memorable: a 4-1 victory cheered on by the 4,471 fans in attendance.
Cunningham’s extraordinary story is told in the TSN original film “All Heart” that premiered on the Canadian sports network on Oct. 25.
Produced and directed by Josh Shiaman, the compelling 11-minute documentary paints a full picture of the Cunningham saga, including the impact it had on the Tucson hockey community.
Shiaman said the film’s title has an obvious double meaning as it relates to the medical side, as well as Cunningham’s trademark steadfastness in pursuit for excellence.
His whole world revolved around hockey.
It was Cunningham’s perseverance and willingness to never give up that impressed Shiaman the most during filming. To coaches and teammates, Cunningham was the personification of hard work.
It was that work ethic and incredible drive to succeed that allowed Cunningham to reach his goal of playing in the NHL.
While his NHL career was brief — 63 games, including 10 with the Arizona Coyotes, the Roadrunners’ parent club — he did fulfill a boyhood dream.
Dr. Zain Khalpey, one of the world’s leading cardiothoracic surgeons who played a leading role in saving Cunningham’s life, believes Cunningham’s recovery will allow him to leave a legacy for others.
“He’s inspiring,” Khalpey said in the film. “He’s inspiring to people who’ve not just been survivors of some kind of death. I think he’s going to leave a legacy in terms what he wants to do. He’s going to be somebody iconic.”
The banner hanging inside the Tucson Arena is proof of that.
— Phillip Brents
(Dec. 5, 2017)