Pascal Vincent is searching.
“I don’t know if fear is the right word, but there’s that feeling, that wave, and it’s there,” he said. “As people, we have to get through it, we have to face it, just like he’s facing what’s happened to him, like a man. But it’s certainly going to be there. The national anthem … the first face off … making sure the first puck drops.”
On Nov. 19, it didn’t.
Perched from his prime real estate, the opposing team bench area where he stands as head coach of the Manitoba Moose, Vincent watched the national anthem and was ready for the opening faceoff of his team’s first visit to the first-year Tucson Roadrunners. He saw Roadrunners team captain Craig Cunningham fall to the ice. He saw what enfolded: Cunningham’s teammates paralyzed in fear, officials scrambling to get medical attention, Tucson trainers pouring onto the ice, Moose trainers joining. The paramedics. The chest-pumping. An arena full of people stunned into silence.
The Moose returned to Tucson on Tuesday for the first time since that day. But really, that’s not right.
The truth is, it hasn’t left them.
“We were frozen, you feel useless,” Vincent said. “You don’t know how serious it’s going to be until you see them cutting off his jersey. You’ve never experienced … you’ve never prepared for that. That moment, hockey stops. You’re not a hockey coach anymore. You’re just witnessing something.
“Hockey disappears from your life.”
Back to Tucson
Fifty-two days after being the other guys, the enemies, on a night no one could have prepared for — Cunningham’s cardiac arrest and the ensuing resuscitative effort, which eventually brought the 26-year-old former Boston Bruins and Arizona Coyotes forward back to life — the Moose returned in the same role.
Tuesday’s game carried a different significance for them, though.
“When something like that happens, as we’re going into battle, you take a step back, realize the situation,” Manitoba forward J.C. Lipon said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a nice game by any means, it’s still going to be a hard-fought game, but it’s a game we had to share as two groups.”
Vincent said the team spoke to psychologists after the Nov. 19 game, and again in the lead up to Tuesday’s matchup. “We have all in our minds the memory of what happened, where it happened, the series of events, and tonight is going to be the next step,” he said after the team’s morning skate-around. “We witnessed something together, and there’s certainly a history between the two teams now.”
He points to his wrist, dangling from which is a white #CunnyCan plastic wristband.
“We wear this now,” he says.
“As much as when the game starts you want to win, you want to play hard, win the battles, be the toughest guys on the ice, when something happens to one of us, it’s beyond hockey. There’s certainly something between these two teams.”
Tucson head coach Mark Lamb agrees.
“What that night does is you have two teams who turned into one team in about 5 seconds,” he said. “Hockey is great; you’re all in it together, and I guarantee their team felt just as bad as our team about what happened. You feel for each other and you hope for each other and then you try to beat each other.”
Memory still fresh
It is still vivid. The memory pulsates, then fades, then comes back.
The national anthem is over, and, Vincent said, “We’re getting ready, doing what we usually do, and then I saw him falling down.” Did Cunningham lose his balance? Is this a gag? Is he embarrassed? “He’s not getting back up, and it was maybe eight or 10 seconds, and it’s like, OK, get back up, it’s not funny anymore.”
Vincent is a thoughtful man, more measured in his words than most professional coaches. Not a longtime NHL player like so many AHL head men; worked his way up through the coaching ranks and managerial ranks of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he played five seasons before a brief stint in the ECHL; shaved head, clean beard, thick French-Canadian accent, which makes sense, as he hails from Laval, Quebec.
Like the first-year Roadrunners, he is in his first season as head coach of the Moose, the AHL affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets, after spending five seasons as an assistant coach of the parent NHL club.
This was foreign territory to just about everyone in that arena, from players to fans to the guy selling cotton candy, and to Vincent, too. There’s no coaching manual for this, as Lamb said after the incident.
“We’re hockey coaches, and that’s the title, but we coach people,” Vincent said. “First and foremost, you try to help your people. In this case, it’s above and beyond. It’s about a human life. Hockey, it’s a small world. Some of our guys know him. We kept them informed, and it went from the chances he makes it are not good to OK, he’s being treated, and then to there might be a chance. Every time, there was a big cheer in our room.”
Some members of the Moose have played against Cunningham their entire careers.
Some have known him, or of him, for much longer.
Mitch Peacock, Manitoba’s play-by-play announcer, happens to hail from Castlegar, British Columbia, a small town of roughly 7,500, maybe 20 minutes away from Cunningham’s hometown of Trail. There’s a sense of pride when one of the locals makes it up through the ranks of professional hockey, and Cunningham’s story of perseverance — he lost his father when he was 6 in a car accident — was already well-known throughout the sporting world.
That night, Nov. 19, Peacock made it a point to introduce himself to Cunningham before the game, as he is wont to do with players familiar with his home region. He waited for Cunningham before the game in the hallways and grabbed him, chatted it up for about 10 minutes.
“It’s a point of great pride. Occasionally, hockey players have made it to the NHL from that area from over the years,” Peacock said. “I’d known he’d graduated from the ranks and become a well-respected pro, and you feel a connection when you’re from those small communities.”
From his vantage point, high, high above the ice in the Tucson Arena press box, Peacock was not sure what was happening in the immediate aftermath of Cunningham’s on-ice cardiac arrest, the root of which still hasn’t been determined.
He knew he had to do some quick thinking, but he couldn’t shake a nagging thought.
“I remember very clearly Craig saying his mother had come down to watch him, and that kept going through my mind,” Peacock said.
He had to switch gears.
“You just kind of switch modes. You go from talking about a hockey game and getting excited about Team A versus Team B, and you keep it very simple and straightforward,” Peacock said. “To me, it was evident very quickly that there was a gravity to the situation.”
For those with a closer view, the memory is even more vibrant.
“It’s hard to put the words on the emotion, but maybe surreal?” Vincent said. “Like, this is not really happening.”
‘Roller coaster of emotion’
On Tuesday afternoon, after the team’s morning skate session, Vincent describes it as “a roller coaster of emotion.” He remembers players getting sick in the locker room. He calls it “just really intense.”
He points to a corner of the facility,
“This here, that’s where the ambulance was, people all over him. Right there, where people went on the ice, skating right by where he fell down, even the national anthem … the national anthems have changed for us. Every national anthem since then, you just try to send him good vibes.
“Sorry about that,” Vincent says, choking back tears.
“We’re a tight group. It’s just so sad.”
Vincent is still tremendously impacted by Cunningham’s trauma.
“Our sport, like football, invites physical contact and some sort of violence,” he said. “It’s a battle out there. To see that happening … it gives you a perspective on life. Our guys, myself, we were calling home after the game to tell our family members, our mothers, wives, kids, brothers, that we love them. It gives you a sense that we’re quite fragile as human beings. This young man is in the best shape of his life, taking care of himself, something like this happens, who knows what’s going to happen in two hours in my life? Tomorrow? Five minutes? It brings you back to real life.”