Craig Cunningham was just 26 when he went into full cardiac arrest before the opening puck drop of an AHL game on Nov. 19, 2016. The Tucson Roadrunners captain, who had suited up for 63 NHL games with the Boston Bruins and Arizona Coyotes, was standing on the ice during the national anthem when he suddenly collapsed.
Cunningham’s heart stopped beating for 83 minutes. Quick-thinking trainers and some local firefighters — who, by chance, were on the ice to perform the national anthem with bagpipes that night — are credited with saving his life. He was nursed by the staff at Banner-University Medical Center, where he underwent a daring operation to decompress the heart, a surgery that had been done only twice in history. Cunningham’s cardiac arrest affected the circulation to his left leg, and so on Christmas Eve 2016, he lost part of the limb when it was amputated below the knee. He also lost his dream of playing professional hockey.
The hockey world rallied around Cunningham’s inspiring tale of survival. Sixteen months later, he is still part of the sport, thanks to a full-time job as a Coyotes pro scout and a prosthetic leg he is so comfortable and proficient with that he can now travel on his own and do full fitness classes on the road. He also has his own foundation and an optimistic outlook on life.
“I’m fine. Every little thing about my life has changed, but the thing is, I’m fine,” Cunningham said. “And if there’s one message I have for people, it’s ‘Don’t think you’re invincible, like I did.’ I’m sure a lot of people do. Take life into your own hands.”
While he was still in the hospital, Coyotes management visited Cunningham regularly. It was all but certain that Cunningham would have to retire from playing hockey after his full cardiac arrest. “They told me to think about what I wanted to do,” he said. “That if I wanted to stay in hockey, there would be a job waiting for me in the organization.”
By spring, Cunningham was ready to resume working. He had completed physical therapy and was slowly mastering his prosthetic leg. Cunningham found that some things he had once taken for granted — many of them small — were no longer easy. “I can’t hop out of bed in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom,” he said. “I can’t stand in the shower like a regular person on two legs. I don’t wear my leg all the time, so just getting around the house can be a challenge.”
But he remained determined to live as normal a life as possible.
The Coyotes restructured their organization during the offseason and had an opening for a pro scout. They offered the job to Cunningham, who took it. “I’m not sure I’ll do this forever,” he said. “I’m just feeling my way around the business side, seeing what’s intriguing to me and what’s not. It’s been a quick turnaround, but I’ve been having a ton of fun.”
The job requires Cunningham to be on the road for 17-to-20 days a month. At first, he needed a scooter to get around and found it difficult to board a plane. Now he moves with ease. He started taking OrangeTheory high-interval classes on the road because he was bored of working out alone. He can complete the treadmill segments just fine but prefers to row because it’s less pounding on his legs. “Really, I can do anything, it’s just a little bit of adaptations I throw in there,” he said. “My favorite is the Assault bike. I take my leg off and can do it with just one leg.”
Scouting allows him to travel North America and stay connected to the sport he loves. “I’ve learned how tight the hockey community is,” he said. “You see these people fighting against each other [on the ice], and it looks like they hate each other. But guys I got into battles with, they reached out. I can’t tell you how many phone calls and texts I got from [players] I had never met.”
All the while, he has strengthened his community back in Arizona. Dr. Zain Khalpey is the Tuscon-based cardiothoracic surgeon who operated on Cunningham. The two talk nearly every day. Cunningham went to Khalpey’s house for Thanksgiving.
Khalpey now serves as the medical director of the Craig Cunningham All Heart Foundation. The nonprofit’s goal, Cunningham says, is to prevent sudden cardiac arrests by promoting prevention and screening of the condition.
“We want people to go and get checked out. There’s enough technology and resources out there,” Cunningham said. “It takes a couple hours out of your day to go in and get the OK from the doc, to make sure nothing is going on and then get on with your regular life. If they find something abnormal, it’s not the end of the world. I would have much rather gone in and found that something is different with me than to lose my leg and have my whole world turned upside down.”