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Coyotes celebrate Craig Cunningham's will to live

AHL forward's recovery from cardiac arrest 'put everything in perspective for everybody'

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan heard Craig Cunningham's name and immediately a smile lit up his face Wednesday. The same thing happened when Cunningham came up in interviews with general manager John Chayka and coach Dave Tippett.

That Cunningham, the 26-year-old captain of Arizona's American Hockey League affiliate in Tucson, was capable of speaking at a press conference 90 miles away while the Coyotes were going through preparations for their game against the Edmonton Oilers at Gila River Arena on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET; FS-A PLUS, SNW) was bigger than hockey, bigger than a game, bigger than anything they could imagine, really.

"We were all so scared," Doan said. "It put everything in perspective for everybody."

Cunningham collapsed on the ice at the Tucson Convention Center prior to the opening faceoff against Manitoba on Nov. 19. As detailed in an article in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star, Cunningham went into cardiac arrest and doctors worked on him for 85 minutes to save his life, making heroic efforts in the process, driving from hospital to hospital with the only piece of equipment that could get his heart pumping properly again.

Cunningham has a long road to recovery and his hockey playing career is likely over, but he is expected to walk out of Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson before Christmas to continue his recovery at a rehabilitation facility.

Dr. Zain Khalpey, the surgeon partly responsible for saving his life, relayed Cunningham's response to the long road ahead of him. 

"Bring it on," Khalpey said.

That's what hooked Tippett, who said he watched Cunningham's press conference and read the story in the Daily Star before he came to the Coyotes optional morning skate.

"That's the epitome of Cunny right there," Tippett said. "Great to see he's doing well.

"He didn't give up on them and the people who helped him didn't give up on him either. They said 85 minutes they kept working on his heart to try to keep him going. It's a miracle. It's a miracle, and it couldn't happen to a better guy."

Coyotes forward Brendan Perlini, who was with Tucson when Cunningham collapsed on the ice, spoke in vivid terms about the experience.

"It was right after the national anthem and we do a little skate before we line up," Perlini said. "Just before we line up I do a big lap and I skated right by him, just by the center ice dot, and I kind of saw from the corner of my eye that he went down. I kept skating and turned back maybe five seconds later and I was like, 'He's still on the ice, what's going on here?' I saw one of our guys skate over, so I trailed behind a couple steps. We saw he wasn't doing well so we obviously called everyone over quick. It was something crazy for sure."

The game was postponed and Perlini and his teammates went to the hospital with Cunningham's mother, Heather. Perlini said his mother, Vicki, was in town and went to the hospital with them to help console Heather Cunningham.

"It was a different experience," Perlini said. "I'm a very positive guy, so obviously I was praying for him to pull through, to do well, but it's a tough situation. Everyone was just in the waiting room and I think some guys were a little more emotional than others. You just don't know what to do. Some guys were feeling really emotional. Some guys were not. Myself, I'm just trying to stay really positive with the guys. Everyone has their different way of reacting to it."

The Coyotes medical personnel stayed in constant contact with the doctors throughout the past month and kept Chayka and Tippett abreast of what was happening so they could keep the players informed.

"It's an amazing story on its own, a real great story about just a special person who battled for his life, but also an amazing story of medical technology and approach, that human element of medicine," Chayka said. "This doctor [Dr. Zain Khalpey], maybe if he had a different personality or makeup he might have been less aggressive in his approach. Right from the firemen and our athletic therapist that were working on him to keep him alive the moment he hit the ice to the multiple surgeries he went through, it's unbelievable. It's a real tough thing for the organization in terms of what we went through and dealt with, but Cunny is such a special person and he's going to be involved in hockey for a long time. Hopefully it's with the Coyotes."

Chayka doubled down on that last statement.

"Look, he is a relentless worker, a hockey lifer," he said. "He'll be in hockey for a long time. He's going to go through a rehab process here, and as soon as he's ready to get back at it I expect him to be with us."

Tippett sounds like he's on board.

"You hear that statement all the time -- 'He's a great teammate' -- but to be a great teammate you've got to be a great friend," Tippett said. "You're just a good guy in the dressing room, you know your role on the team and you do that to the max. He's one of those guys that's probably considered an overachiever, a guy that probably somebody told him some time he was too small to play, can't do this and can't do that, and he just proved everybody wrong. His will to play the game and be an NHL player is one thing, but now it's been backed up with his will to live. When you have that inner push, that's pretty special."

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