I see his Tucson Roadrunners jersey hanging near the home locker room, turned backward so the stitched name shows to all who pass by. It’s “CUNNINGHAM,” all in capital letters. The jersey is there at all the road games, too, the team captain’s “C” above the Roadrunners logo on the front.
When the team wears specialty uniforms, like last weekend’s lavender version in support of cancer research, they make and display a Craig Cunningham model. The No. 14 jersey is always there, reminding all that the team captain is still there, too.
Craig Cunningham hasn’t actually worn his jersey on the ice since suffering a major cardiac event on the ice on Nov. 19. It has been months of touch-and-go hospital stays, then stabilization, and now rehabilitation for the 26-year-old. An amputation took a foot, and now a prosthetic ankle and foot are in place.
Videos posted to social media recently show Cunningham up and mobile, walking with a good gait as he learns his new foot. One clip showed him walking down the TCC arena stairs last Saturday during the Roadrunners’ game, tentatively at first, and then foot over foot at near-regular speed.
So don’t be surprised if you see Craig Cunningham, donning his signature jersey as he walks onto the TCC ice this Saturday night to drop the ceremonial puck. It’s Craig Cunningham Night for the Roadrunners as they take on the AHL Pacific Division-leading San Jose Barracuda, but it just as easily could be billed as Not A Dry Eye In The House Night.
The captain will be back, where he belongs, with his team, on the ice. No, he won’t skate in the game, instead appearing as proof that his ongoing recovery is full steam ahead. There is nothing wrong with Cunningham’s hearing, but he might need to get his ears checked after the game, because my guess is that the TCC faithful will scream with joy at his entrance. An extended, thunderous standing ovation will undoubtedly stretch on until Craig himself begs for it to stop.
After all, there is also a hockey game that night.
I can’t remember any comparable event where so much goodwill and support has oozed publicly for a sports figure in medical peril. Dozens of former and current teammates flew to his side as he survived his still mostly unexplained heart failure and stayed with him as he slowly recovered. At practices, players are drawn to him rink-side, like a magnet.
Letters and get-well cards continue to pour in from around the globe. Other teams adopted his #CunnyCan social media hashtag. Team management didn’t shy away from the fallen Roadrunner — they embraced his importance as a player and an even-more-important legacy as a leader and just plain good guy.
Craig Cunningham’s health was always at the forefront of the Roadrunners’ minds, but it became apparent as the weeks turned into months away that the team lost a lot more than just one of its best players.
The Roadrunners lost their ultimate leader.
“You can’t replace that,” coach Mark Lamb said this week. “This may sound funny, I really don’t know how to put it, but nobody wants to take it (Cunningham’s leadership role) because of the situation, and I really don’t blame the guys.”
Hockey leadership is hard to explain or define. Every team has its own character, its own needs for leadership, and the Roadrunners quickly embraced and embodied Craig Cunningham’s likable, honest style.
There are other seasoned veterans on this team who have chipped in on the leadership front, but it has been said over and over by all in the Roadrunners’ organization: You cannot replace a Craig Cunningham. He’s a one-in-a-million hockey leader.
“There’s a void there, it’s the kind of a spot where you can’t explain, but it’s real, and you can’t fill it,” Lamb said.
That ultimate respect from the coaching staff, players, management, support staff and fans is the reason why earplugs will be useful at tomorrow night’s game. This should be as pure and honest as group emotion can be at a sporting event.
Craig Cunningham will wear his “C” and join his teammates at center ice, and the crowd will roar.
“You see Cunny around here and he’s doing so well, and for everything that’s happened, this is going to be a great night,” Lamb said.
Oh, that #CunnyCan hashtag evolved into #CunnyDid for this event.
The Craig Cunningham story isn’t in the past tense, though. He is just getting started.