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Cunningham enjoying new role as Coyotes pro scout

Making successful transition after playing career ended at age 26

by Sean Shapiro / Correspondent

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Craig Cunningham is back where he belongs.

It's early September, the NHL season is around the corner, and Cunningham, 26, is in a hockey rink preparing for the upcoming season.

He may be scouting for the Arizona Coyotes instead of playing, but being back in a rink evaluating prospects 10 months after he nearly lost his life is a welcome return to normalcy.

"I'm only 26, so I didn't think my career was going to end right away," Cunningham said. "For me, if you look on the positive side, I got a head start on everyone else. Eventually your career comes to an end, there is a life after hockey as a player that you have to be prepared for."

Cunningham collapsed on the ice and sustained a cardiac rhythm disturbance that stopped his heart before an American Hockey League game in Tucson, Arizona, on Nov. 19, 2016. While medics performed CPR, Cunningham's condition continued to worsen and he received a life-saving procedure where a pump circulated blood and was hooked up to an oxygenator, which served as an artificial lung.

Cunningham's heart didn't beat on its own for two days after he collapsed. But he started to recover when doctors at Banner-University Medical Center Tucson used a left ventricular assist device, called an Oxy-LVAD, which allowed his heart to recover.

The procedure saved his life, but impacted the circulation in Cunningham's left leg. The limb was partially amputated on Dec. 24, when doctors had to make a choice to save a life or a limb.

"You go through sometimes where I get some anxiety about what happened," Cunningham said. "But I've talked to some guys who have dealt with cardiac arrest, and they say, 'You've beat it already. You aren't even supposed to be here.' So that's the way I'm looking at it now."

He's also focused on being the best he can be after signing a two-year contract with the Coyotes to serve as a pro scout and assist in player development on May 24.

"The last year has been a real cycle of things I'm not used to," Cunningham said. "But it's been a lot of fun. Arizona has been great to me and given me a really good opportunity, and showing me the ropes and how it works."

Cunningham has always had a sharp mind for the game -- he played in 63 NHL games and captained three different AHL teams during his playing career. Now it's a process of applying that to scouting. He said he's already picked up some minor tricks of the trade and worked to gather information during the 2017 Traverse City Prospects Tournament.

The tournament, which was first hosted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, has turned into an annual pilgrimage for scouts from all 31 NHL teams.

"Been eight or nine guys here already that have reached out to me and told me if you need any help, just let me know," Cunningham said. "I think that's the great thing about the hockey world, it's a big business but it's such a tight group."

Cunningham has had a chance to catch up with Rich Peverley and Jiri Fischer in Traverse City about the sudden transition to a post-playing career.

Fischer's career ended in 2005 when his heart stopped on the bench, he is now the Red Wings director of player development. Peverley's ended in 2014 when he was playing for the Dallas Stars and he also collapsed on the bench because of a cardiac issue caused by an irregular heartbeat. Now he is their player development coordinator.

"Those guys have been great. It's always nice to talk to someone else that's been through the same thing as you and know you're not alone," Cunningham said. "I think it's special thing about being a hockey player and being involved in hockey, is there is so many people around, but everyone really does care about individual guys."

The most difficult part of the new job? The paperwork.

"I think the hardest thing for us as former players is figuring out the computer system and how to write stuff down and do things like that," Cunningham said.

And that's nothing compared to what Cunningham has conquered in the past 10 months.

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