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Cunningham, Lemieux honored at NHL Alumni Awards Gala

Former Coyotes forward given Ace Bailey Award of Courage; Penguins owner named Keith Magnuson Man of the Year

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Craig Cunningham fought to find the right words. And to hold back tears.

In a year where he has overcome so many obstacles, these were two fights he actually was losing.

There he was, standing in front of Hockey Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux during the NHL Alumni Awards Gala at Scotiabank Centre in Toronto on Monday. The two men were being honored as part of the festivities, with Lemieux the recipient of the Keith Magnuson Man of the Year award, Cunningham the winner of the Ace Bailey Award of Courage.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd win an award on the same night as Mario Lemieux," Cunningham said, his eyes welling up, his voice cracking with emotion. "Meeting him is a dream come true. He's such an inspiration."

On this occasion, he wasn't the only one.

"No, no, no," Lemieux said. "It is Craig who is the inspiration. We can all learn something by his story and the way he has fought adversity."

Video: Mario Lemieux honored at 2017 NHL Alumni Awards Gala

Watching her son chatting with Lemieux was Cunningham's mother, Heather. Tears were trickling down her cheeks. This was a scene she had never expected, not after enduring the roller-coaster ride that has been Cunningham's life since last November.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "There were so many times we weren't sure if we'd ever see him again. And now, to see this moment, with him so happy …"

Overcome by emotion, she buried her face in her hands.

"I'm sorry," she said several seconds later. "To see him so thrilled to meet Mario Lemieux, let alone anything, is amazing.

"Even I was texting all my friends saying: 'Hey, I just met Mario Lemieux.'"

Lemieux won the Stanley Cup twice as a player, three times as an owner, each with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But as Lemieux himself said, this night was all about Cunningham.

On Nov. 19, 2016, Cunningham, a forward with Tucson of the American Hockey League, collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest. After being resuscitated back to life by medical officials on the scene, Cunningham was rushed to the hospital, where he was in a coma for nine days.

"Imagine waking up after all that with 15 intravenous tubes sticking in you, listening to the heart monitor going 'beep, beep, beep,' wondering how you got there and what had happened," Cunningham recalled Monday. 

In the days that followed, Cunningham learned about how he had almost lost his life. A month later, he would lose part of his left leg after doctors told him he'd developed an infection that could impact his weakened heart if amputation was not done.

"I was crushed," Cunningham said. "My hockey dream was over."

Or was it?

On March 31, Cunningham donned a prosthetic leg for a morning skate aided by physical therapists and former teammates from Tucson. One hundred thirty-two days after he'd collapsed on the ice and almost died, he was back on blades.

These days, Cunningham is back in the world of pro hockey, serving as a scout for the Arizona Coyotes. All the while, he's teaming up with renowned cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr. Zain Khalpey, the man who helped save his life almost a year ago, to develop a screening process to better help prevent SCA.

There are a number of examples of SCA touching the hockey world. Mickey Renaud, 19 and captain of Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League at the time, collapsed and died on Feb. 18, 2008. New York Rangers first-round draft pick Alexei Cherepanov collapsed and died during a Kontinental Hockey League game on Oct. 13, 2008.

"I just want to help," Cunningham said.

It's another reason why Cunningham has earned Lemieux's admiration.

Like Cunningham, Lemieux has endured his own personal off-ice battles over the years, including bouts with Hodgkin Lymphoma and spinal disc herniation. 

"The overwhelming support that Craig has received from the hockey world doesn't surprise me at all," Lemieux said. "It's a tight-knit community. I found that out firsthand during my battle with cancer. 

"It's not easy to come back from serious health issues, but Craig's story is something we all can learn from."

The Mario Lemieux Foundation has donated millions of dollars towards medical research projects since its inception in 1993. It's one of the many reasons Glenn Healy, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, said Lemieux was the perfect choice to win the Keith Magnuson Man of the Year award.

Lemieux is 16th former player to win the award, named for the former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman and NHLAA executive board director who died in a car accident in 2003.

NHLAA senior director Wendy McCreary, director of the association's BreakAway Program that helps players transition into life after hockey, was the first woman to receive the Keith McCreary 7th Man Award. The honor is named for her late father, the founder and first chairman of the NHLAA, which was formed in 1999.

The Tragically Hip received the inaugural Honorary Alumni award, which for one day gives an individual or group membership in the NHLAA without having played an NHL game.

But the loudest roar of the night came when Cunningham accepted the Ace Bailey Award of Courage, named for former NHL forward Garnet "Ace" Bailey, who was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Cunningham, who played 63 NHL games for the Boston Bruins and Coyotes between 2013-14 and 2015-16, received a standing ovation when he finished his speech, a crowd that included Lemieux, Ted Lindsay, Paul Coffey and so many other of the game's greats.

"If that's not inspirational," Healy said, "I don't know what is."

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