by Alexander Kinkopf | AHL On The Beat
Some may say it provided a degree of closure.
If you were to spin it that way, you’d only be doing so in reference to the future that’s been rekindled, to what lies ahead.
And isn’t it beautiful.
Tucson Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham returned to Tucson Arena on Saturday night for the first time since collapsing on Nov. 19. He did so unannounced. He did so to greet the teammates who balloted him as their leader in October. He did so to take in a hockey game.
After all, hockey was – and will likely continue to be – a prominent aspect of the 26-year-old’s livelihood.
“I got a text from Craig at probably around noon [on Saturday],” said Roadrunners general manager Doug Soetaert, who has been by Cunningham’s side throughout the entire process of his recovery. “He said that he was interested in coming to the game, and if it was possible. I said ‘absolutely.’
“He was the one that wanted to come.”
As is the case when any leader speaks up, you comply.
Chris Mueller, who sits to the left of Cunningham’s stall in Tucson’s dressing room, did so with Craig present Saturday. The two manned the Roadrunners’ top unit during training camp and through the first 11 games of the season.
“He was sitting in his normal stall,” Mueller noted with a grin. “Whenever you see him, it makes you happy and it brings a smile to your face. It’s good to see him smile, and it makes you feel a lot better.”
For a team that was vehemently tested emotionally and mentally in steadfast fashion as they trudged on without their captain in sight, Cunningham’s return to the group Saturday provided the gift that is one of the sport’s priceless commodities – camaraderie.
“Whenever you see Craig, I think we all come together as friends,” Mueller said. “You almost don’t think about hockey, you think about how close we are and the support that we have for each other, because we’ve been through a lot and Cunny’s been through a lot. We’re going to continue to support him and be there for each other.”
Certainly Cunningham’s presence shifted the players’ minds into a state of companionship. Isn’t that though, the driving force behind this game?
Tucson’s play was proof – the Roadrunners belted out three first-period goals with Cunningham situated in the stands en route to a victory over the Texas Stars.
Amidst the Roadrunners’ spirited start to Saturday night’s game came an appearance by Cunningham on the arena’s video board during a stoppage in play.
His appearance was unexpected to the 4,825 in attendance that night.
His presence was striking.
“It was a case of actually seeing him here with a smile on his face and wanting to be a part of it all,” Soetaert said. “It was very positive, very uplifting for myself, the coaching staff, the players, and the entire organization.”
As he continues to rehabilitate, Cunningham’s company at the Roadrunners’ facilities should become more and more common.
“He would do anything to be out on the ice with us, but he still supports us and talks to us every day,” said Mueller. “He just loves being around the guys, and now that he’s where he is doing his therapy and stuff, he’s going to be around the guys a lot more, and get that freedom to just be a normal guy again.”That freedom to embrace what’s ahead is something that will continue to flourish, continue to blossom on a daily basis.
Saturday was just a start to it all.
“[Craig’s] mother texted my wife the next day and said ‘Craig felt great, he feels wonderful’ to be around the players and to be a part of it,” Soetaert fondly recalled. “It’s a great step to his recovery.”
What is the next step?
“At some point in time, we’ll talk about him maybe traveling with the team and being an everyday person down here, being involved with his teammates and the coaching staff.”
There wouldn’t be a daily addition to the team Soetaert would rather make. Not even close.
The emotions Soetaert spoke with, however enclosed the seasoned GM may have believed they were, permeated through the team’s facilities with a radiance of relief, pride, protection, and support.
“It’s all trending in the right direction,” he said. “You can see an end in sight. We’re very, very happy, but we do see an end in sight for him, and that’s to be a healthy citizen, and that’s the most we could wish for.”
It’s ironic, at times, which words, which statements, can end up triggering the deepest, most vulnerable sentiments.
“We’re coming to an end of having to worry about Craig.”
There it is.
And with that, a robust future awaits.