At 7:07 p.m. Friday, Craig Cunningham returned to the scene of the crime.
The crime: Robbery of hockey career, first-degree. With malice.
That the Tucson Roadrunners would eventually pile on three goals in a 4-1 win over the Iowa Wild at Tucson Arena, moving to 4-1-1 on the season, was of little consequence. There were three stars after the game, but the only one that mattered was the former star before it.
Nearly 11 months after suffering a cardiac arrest on the ice just prior to the opening faceoff of a mid-November matchup against the visiting Manitoba Moose, the Roadrunners honored Cunningham. His No. 14 jersey was retired and hoisted up into the southeast corner rafters, and a bouquet of flowers was handed to his mother, Heather. Cunningham received a beautiful framed display of his jersey, a photo and the puck that scored the first goal in franchise history. He also received an engraved watch and a seven-day vacation to Hawaii from the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, Tucson’s parent team and Cunningham’s new employer.
Cunningham stood stoically, showing scarce emotion, as a video of his highlights played on the big screen. Only twice did he wave to an adoring crowd, which gave him an extended standing ovation. He seemed overcome by it all. Humble and reserved by nature, it was as if he melted in the spotlight.
Until, that is, his former teammates skated over, offering something much greater than the watch or the trip: Love. They hugged him and high-fived him and hugged his mother and shook hands with his brother. The Wild followed.
“No person in hockey, no person in life, wants to be a part of this,” Roadrunners forward Dylan Strome said. “You really felt the emotion of the guys who played with him last year. Even just the hugs they were giving him. You see things like that and you know why hockey is the best game in the world. It brings people together.”
For Cunningham, whose left leg was amputated below the knee as a result of an infection — he estimates he’s had “15 or 16 surgeries” since last November — Friday night was just another step in his lengthy recovery.
For his former teammates, Friday night served as a time of inspiration, a reminder how quickly a life can be forever changed, how quickly a career can be derailed.
“It was kind of tough,” goalie Marek Langhamer said. “I’ve known Craig for three years now, he was my teammate, and it’s tough to see when he came out and you know he’s not going to play hockey for the rest of his life.”
The ceremony was cosponsored by Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital, the place Cunningham was transported by ambulance immediately after collapsing on the Tucson Arena ice. The local honor was a long time coming.
Cunningham dropped the puck at an Arizona Coyotes game last May and has since joined the team as a professional scout, but the Roadrunners wanted to wait until this season for the jersey-retirement ceremony.
“That was a big ceremony for the team,” said Roadrunners forward Nick Merkley, who had two goals on the night. “A lot of guys got to play with him last year. I knew him growing up — my parents were good friends with his parents — and it was a nice ceremony, and I think we played with that emotion tonight.”
Like last year, after emotions ran high following Cunningham’s on-ice collapse, the Roadrunners are tasked with returning to a sense of normalcy.
They’ll play the Wild again Saturday and, following a six-day break, will return to Tucson Arena for a four-game homestand.