The arena goes quiet just before the puck is to drop. Gasps pour out, followed by light chattering. A leader is down, a friend. Time stands still. A chill comes over an already chilly hockey game. Parents hug their children. Strangers hug each other. Tears well in the corners of eyes. In the moments to come, a parade of heroes fights to save a life, and four men fight to save a season.
The 26-year-old team captain of the Tucson Roadrunners, Craig Cunningham, has dropped to the ice, convulsing. He has lost consciousness. His heart stops.
Here’s what happens next:
The team president
Bob Hoffman was high above the rink, watching the national anthem from his perch up on the runway. He was excited for the Nov. 19 Roadrunners game, the seventh scheduled home contest in team history.
The team has been a boon to the city so far, a real taste of professional sports played inside a remodeled arena. For a city without a major league sports franchise, the Roadrunners have been a shot in the arm.
Hoffman is in the middle of it all after being promoted to team president in mid-September, replacing the short-lived Brian Sandy.
Hoffman loves taking it all in. He’s been involved in the sport for nearly two decades, most recently as the executive vice president for the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards.
He’s never seen anything like this.
Cunningham fell to the ice, and within five seconds, Hoffman was sprinting for the stairs.
“At points you think back, and it feels like it took forever, and sometimes it felt like a millisecond,” he said.
Hoffman initially thought the forward had slipped and hit his head, but then two officials skated over and beckoned for medical help.
Trainers from both the Roadrunners and their opponent, the Manitoba Moose, bolted toward the ice. A group of local firemen who happened to be on the ice performing the national anthem as a Scottish bagpipe and drum band jetted over to help. Within seconds, Cunningham’s jersey was cut off and medics performed chest compressions. He was placed on a stretcher and hurried out.
Hoffman quickly made it down to the home-team corner, his mind racing as quickly as his feet.
“I’ve been in the sport a long time, and I’ve seen on-ice injuries, but I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said.
In the moments after, Hoffman had dual purposes.
“I felt for Craig, but the attention he was receiving — they got to him quickly — that made me switch up,” he said. “How are the players? How are the officials going to deal with this? We have a very young staff, and for most, it’s their first time in hockey, and a lot of them got a good look at what was happening. Then it was about trying to make sure everything got checked off, whether it be for one minute, 10 minutes or an hour.”
Hoffman quickly huddled with Tucson general manager Doug Soetaert behind the rink. The general manager of Manitoba, Craig Helsinger, happened to be at the game that night, too. The three discussed postponing the game.
“I think what we noticed was the state the players were in, just seeing their facial expressions,” Hoffman said.
They called American Hockey League officials, and within 10 minutes, a decision was made.
“We just realized there was no way we could put on a game,” Hoffman said. “It was the psyche of players, but also the staff.”
Hoffman remembers being backstage, looking at Soetaert, mouth agape, his mind a jumble.
What do we do now?
The general manager
Soetaert is, like Hoffman, a hockey lifer.
The Roadrunners’ general manager played professional puck for years; after a half-decade bouncing between the AHL and the NHL’s New York Rangers, he finally hooked on for good with the Winnipeg Jets in 1981. Soetaert played for the Montreal Canadiens and eventually hung up the skates back with the Rangers in 1987. He played with Mark Messier, went mano-a-mano with Patrick Roy, faced a Wayne Gretzky breakaway, for heaven’s sake. He knows hockey.
Soetaert was a goaltender, after all; he’s a protector.
That Saturday night, he’d turned away just before the opening face-off and looked back, sitting up above in the press box. He looked back and saw someone on the ice. He didn’t know who it was or what was happening.
Soetaert realized as soon as everyone else did that it was Cunningham, his dimpled team captain.
“I thought he tripped and was laying there being silly, and then he laid there and laid there, and when you see the refs send the trainers over, you know it’s serious,” Soetaert said. “It was a traumatic experience visualizing what was going on. You could hear first responders working on him right away.”
He remembers huddling backstage with Hoffman. Soetaert recalls the moment that he found out that Cunningham’s mother, Heather, was in the stands. She had arrived that day from Trail, British Columbia.
Soetaert immediately went to look after her.
“We had to comfort her, first and foremost,” he said. “I made sure she was looked after.”
Public address announcer Dave Lieb informed the crowd that the game was postponed, and most of the players bolted to St. Mary’s Hospital, less than two miles from the arena.
Soetaert said that Heather accepted a ride to the hospital, still stunned at the scene that had unfolded, and by the time everyone got out, “It was 10 to 15 minutes later,” Soetaert said.
It was a touch-and-go situation. Numerous code blues.
Soetaert felt for Heather. He attended the meetings with numerous doctors, nurses and specialists, right by her side.
“It was a real-life situation that she was going through, and we couldn’t let her do that by herself,” he said. “She was in very bad shape, seeing her son laying there, trying to understand why this happened. We were trying to comfort her. Everyone wants to know what’s going on, and we were trying to keep the players as informed as possible.”
Around 1 a.m., a specialist from Banner-University Medical Center arrived and performed a major operation, which Soetaert said is believed to be the first time a doctor has gone from UMC to St. Mary’s to perform a surgery to stabilize a patient.
After his condition was stabilized, players started to filter out in groups. It was approaching 3 a.m.
“It wasn’t only players and staffs working together, it was the doctors at both St. Mary’s and UMC,” he said. “It was just an unbelievable scene of people working together, right from the beginning until the end of the night. Everybody was pulling and praying, there was great communication from the doctors. And a lot of soul-searching.”
The Roadrunners brought their sports psychologist in on Sunday for counseling. On Monday, the team higher-ups met to determine their course of action. Cunningham’s condition had only slightly improved, and team officials told the media that the captain was “critically ill.”
So was the psyche of the team.
“We did not feel very good about the group mentally being ready to play on Tuesday,” Soetaert said. “We met with our leadership and decided we were too fragile to be playing.”
But they also knew the blunt truth: Despite a tragedy, however stark, a season cannot be canceled.
The Roadrunners postponed two midweek games, but needed to set a return date. And that date would be the following Saturday, Nov. 26.
“I don’t know if you ever get past the anguish, but you have to have a reset button,” he said. “We have to be mentally and physically ready to play. We all love him, support him, and there was nothing we could do, so we had to get back to some form of normality. As in life, you have to keep moving.”
With so many moving parts, though, normality is a fluid thing. Hoffman estimates that on any given game night, there are roughly 120-130 employees working the game.
Can you ever be normal again after watching something like this?
That night, there were more than 2,000 people in the seats.
That means 4,000 eyes watching heartbreak unfold in real time. At least 50 of those eyes were all on one man: head coach Mark Lamb.
“I acted how I act,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s good, bad, whatever, but you have to be an influence, have to be a leader. I thought about that a lot. Have I ever been in a situation like that before? No, but I’ve been in some situations. I wouldn’t say I’m hardened by it, but I’ve seen some things.”
Lamb grew up on a farm. He calls his clan “a rodeo family,” and in the folksiest of rodeo parlance, he says, “and I seen a lotta wrecks.” A roper and rider himself, he’s been in a few.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys being carried off on stretchers, but you know it’s a broken bone, a shoulder,” Lamb said. “This is … this is different. With that, you see a wreck, and you know something bad has happened. The other night, we didn’t see a wreck.
“We just saw a guy laying on the ice, fighting for his life.”
Like Hoffman and Soetaert and probably everyone else in the arena, the tragedies in his own life came flashing back.
Lamb remembers watching a player break his neck on the ice as a second-year pro. He recalled the 1986 Swift Current bus crash, when the Swift Current Broncos’ team bus hit a patch of black ice and flipped, killing four players.
“I told the guys, this is a game that can bring a lot of joy to your life,” Lamb said, “but it can also bring sadness, and this is probably the most sadness I’ve ever seen.”
In that moment, Lamb, a 52-year-old father of three, had to look after two dozen of his other kids.
Standing in the Roadrunners locker room, Lamb wasn’t prepared to address 20-plus physically tough but emotionally broken hockey players. “You gain some experience, but you’re never ready for something like that, at all,” Lamb said. “You can’t be ready for that.”
Not only did the horrors he’s seen fill his thoughts, but thoughts of his own family did as well.
Like Soetaert, Lamb said, “You look and go, oh, my God, what about his parents? You start reflecting on everything, your own family, your own experiences, and those aren’t positive things you’re looking back on. Then as a coach, I’m going, ‘Wow, I have to be the leader of the ship now?’”
Lamb describes the locker room that followed the incident accurately, if sadly.
“Everyone was in a somber mood, as it should be,” he said.
Lamb could see his players easing back toward normalcy two days later, when they met for an informal skate session.
“I think going out on the ice made everyone a little more comfortable,” Lamb said. “It’s what we’re used to, and in a bad situation, we felt comfortable together, being at the rink.”
Lamb was involved in the decision to cancel the two midweek games. These are his players, his kids. They weren’t ready.
“You have to look at the big picture, and at the team,” he said. “We do have men on the team, but there are still a lot of young kids who’ve never dealt with this kind of situation. When you’re going on the ice, you’re playing to win, and how important was winning at that point? Not at all. For us to cancel the games, give ourselves time to reflect or heal a little bit.
“I didn’t want to coach to win when it didn’t matter.”
“Fear,” Eric Selleck says.
That sums it up.
One word to describe what it’s like, as a player, to see a friend, a brother, a captain, in such a bleak scenario.
You can’t imagine what it’s like to play the game again.
“I was nervous, I was scared, I was shocked,” Selleck said. “The whole team was shocked. There’s no way you can watch that happen to somebody, one of your buddies, a team captain, and then continue. It was really needed to take the week.”
And on that night, Selleck was really needed.
Selleck is 29, a decade deep into his professional career. He’s one of the longtooths on the team, a lifetime of hockey worn across his face.
The Roadrunners were not just looking to Lamb on that night, but to their leaders, and as a veteran and assistant captain, eyes were on Selleck, too.
“A lot of guys raced to the hospital, but for me personally, I just sat down, regrouped, and I was one of the last guys over there,” Selleck said. “We just tried to help one another get through it. Nobody knew exactly what to do, but everyone looks to the team leaders, the older guys, and I’m one of those guys, and honestly I didn’t know what to do.”
At the hospital, players rallied around each other. They laughed, when they could. There were tears. Some were forced into unforeseen roles.
Selleck said Brandon Burlon, a 26-year-old defenseman, stepped up to the plate.
“Burlon was in there talking with his mom, calling the brothers for his mom, and none of us had eaten and he went and got pizza and wings,” Selleck said. “That night he did a great job. He’s an older guy, he’s been around. Different guys handle those situations differently, and I thought he did a great job with his mother, making calls. When nobody else wanted to leave, he went and did it. It was awesome.”
Awesome is perhaps a strange word to use when describing a harrowing scenario, but when someone rises to confront sadness and fear head-on, it is indeed awe-inspiring.
There are other words to describe this situation. Scarier words.
Cunningham remains in the hospital. The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, Tucson’s parent club, have offered few details about Cunningham’s status. Former teammate Milan Lucic told NHL.com late last month that Cunningham has “progressed a lot,” though he remains in and out of consciousness.
There remain many questions. How did this happen? And why?
The Roadrunners rallied around their captain on that night, and around each other, but the wound is still fresh. Who knows if they’ll get answers?
“We see guys get banged up, break an ankle, and you know what, it’s a thing,” Selleck said. “It’s just a thing. You know they’re gonna live, gonna be OK, may be out a while, but we know there are steps that are going to get you back in the game.
“With this … it is the fear of the unknown.”