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Craig Cunningham thanks those who saved his life

Forward won't rule out return to professional hockey despite odds

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer

Craig Cunningham admitted he's probably done playing professional hockey, but don't be surprised to see him involved with the game on or off the ice in any way, shape or form.

"We'll see when I get back from rehab how it goes," Cunningham said Wednesday. "As of right now, at the level that I was playing at, I don't know if I'll ever get back to playing pro, but anything can happen."

After all, the fact that Cunningham, 26, is living and breathing is proof he had defied long odds and can do it again. The captain of the Arizona Coyotes' American Hockey League affiliate in Tucson was in critical condition after he had a heart attack before a game against Manitoba on Nov. 19.

Thanks to the effort from doctors at Carondelet St. Mary's Hospital and Banner-University Medical Center Tucson, Cunningham will be released to a rehabilitation center before Christmas.

"I wouldn't be here today without these doctors, our trainers, and the firefighters who were at the arena that night," Cunningham said. "Some days are good and some days are bad. It's more, for me right now, it's just kind of mental. I've been here for so long. You look up at the roof every day and it's the same roof. It's been a pretty big grind just being in the same spot the whole time and doing the same thing every day."

Tweet from @ArizonaCoyotes: An incredible team. #CunnyCan

Dr. Zain Khalpey, a cardiothoracic surgeon, said Cunningham's heart is fully repaired, after it essentially wasn't beating for the first couple of days after he collapsed on the ice. Forty-five minutes after the incident, Khalpey received a call from Dr. George Haloftis, a physician at St. Mary's who told him Cunningham was not responding to increasing dosages of Epinephrine and Levophed.

Cunningham was transferred to Banner, where he received advanced life-saving therapy using ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a specialized procedure for patients so critically ill that no other support for the heart and lungs is adequate.

The prognosis was grim. Cunningham was on a ventilator and bleeding from his lungs. Cunningham's mother, Heather, told the Arizona Daily Star, "I watched my son die right in front of my eyes."

Though Cunningham's condition continued to worsen, Khalpey used a left ventricular assist device, called an Oxy-LVAD, which allowed his heart to recover. Cunningham became stable and the road to recovery had begun.

"I don't think I will ever find the words to express how grateful I really am," Heather Cunningham said Wednesday. "Craig would not be with us today if these people had not gone that extra mile in every aspect of this situation. The only reason he survived the original incident was the continued refusal to give up in a seemingly hopeless situation.

"They had run out of options and had to create new options by pushing the boundaries of things they've tried and implanted before. Most of all they refused to give up in spite of hopelessness. These people are nothing short of a gift to mankind and I will remember the gift they have given every time I look at my son."

Selected by the Boston Bruins in the fourth round (No. 97) of the 2010 NHL Draft, Cunningham was claimed off waivers by the Coyotes on March 2, 2015. The forward has three goals and eight points in 65 NHL games with the Bruins and Coyotes, and four goals and 13 points in 11 games with Tucson, including the first goal in Roadrunners history on Oct. 14.

Though that chapter in Cunningham's life appears to be closed, Movahed said it's too soon to determine the course of his future.

"He's a strong man and he has recovered greatly, so I think he'll probably be able to do some of his hobbies," Movahed said. "How far he can be professionally depends on how he recovers, but it's too early to say."

Never in doubt was Cunningham's commitment to fight for his life. Once he came off a ventilator, Khalpey and his team discussed his recovery.

"I said, 'You're going to have a tough time,'" Khalpey said. "He understood and said, 'Bring it on.'

"That epitomizes who he is, so he's ready for anything."

Khalpey then presented Cunningham a hockey stick signed by a staff of doctors and nurses.

"From us, we wanted to say thank you from our hearts about what was meant and how we feel about you and how you will keep going on," Khalpey said.

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