Wednesday marked another remarkable day in Craig Cunningham’s journey from his life-threatening, on-ice incident three years ago.
The 28-year-old Trail native posted a video of himself on a prosthetic skate adeptly gliding around at a rink in San Diego.
It was the latest milestone for Cunningham, who saw his professional hockey career cut short in November, 2016 in Arizona when he collapsed on the ice prior to an American Hockey League game between Tuscon and Manitoba.
According to medical reports, Cunningham suffered ventricular fibrillation, a heart rhythm problem that occurs when the heart beats with rapid, erratic electrical impulses. An emergency start-of-the-art surgery helped relieve the stress on his heart and save his life but resulted in the loss of his left leg.
Undeterred Cunningham worked diligently on his recovery and adapted to his new life and mobility.
And this week, thanks to a ground-breaking prosthetic skate, Cunningham was skating circles around the ice moving freely and almost effortlessly.
In a report by Amalie Benjamin on nhl.com, she described Cunningham’s first turns on his new skate.
“I didn’t want to be embarrassed,” Cunningham told Benjamin. “I didn’t want to go out there and glide around and not look like I knew what I was doing. So as I spent more and more time on the ice, I got a little more comfortable, kind of get into that athletic position and really push and trust your edges and stuff like that.
“Everyone’s afraid of failure. I’m not any different than anyone else, so it was important. There were lots of cameras around and people watching, so I was like, [wow], I’d better get this thing done.”
Cunningham had skated a few times before, his first time on ice was only four months after losing his leg. But in those instances he used a regular skate attached to his prosthetic leg.
That’s when San Diego-based Peter Harsch Prosthetics helped out.
The company’s online story describes an effort to fill the gap of “achieving the perfect fit between active amputee and high-performance artificial limb.”
In an interview with the Trail Times from his office in San Diego, Harsch explained the work and joy behind Cunningham’s achievement.
“It was really the first time that he got up and really skated,” said Harsch. “I know he tried some other companies and he didn’t have the results. So that video was the first shot. There was no practicing.”
More than just creating a prosthetic for an athlete, Harsch described the feeling and emotion involved as well.
“Craig is such a great man. His Mom really raised a great man. When people have lots of setbacks you either have a choice to give up and surrender or just try and keep going. He looked at me and the guys who helped fabricate it and design it and he said ‘I really appreciate this, you guys are changing my life for the better. I didn’t think this was possible.’
“It’s very impressive when you have someone like that, who has been through such hard times, that they can go home happy. It’s a Godly blessing to be able to help somebody. I think the best is still to come.”
Harsch said they began working with Cunningham in December to help him get a prosthetic to allow him to walk more comfortably. They reached that goal at their rehab centre in San Diego.
“Then he said ‘I’m comfortable, I got a well-fitting leg, maybe I should rethink about getting back on the ice again.’
“We came up with a little bit of an idea.”
Through their in-house work they designed a prosthetic using titanium, aircraft aluminum and added a Tuuk skate blade. Harsch said the design team had to figure out what they had to do anatomically and bio-mechanically to allow skate to feel like his leg and his skate are on the ice
“We looked at the angles and all the other stuff. We mocked something up and took him to the hockey rink Wednesday. Then on Thursday we put him through a three-mile run. When you have a good fitting leg you can start pushing the limits.”
Harsch, a native of Tuscon, laughed at the fact that his team “made a skate leg for an NHL hockey player and none of us ever played hockey or been to a rink.”
His company has worked with numerous amputees from around the world from children to war veterans.
“It’s an honour to get somebody up and going. It’s always a blessing to help someone’s life.”
Meanwhile, Cunningham told nhl.com that this week has been a big step forward in his recovery.
“Now that I’ve got some stability in my leg and I’m not getting the pinpoint pressures anymore, it’s made a huge difference,” he said. “They really say an active life goes on, and that’s where I’m at right now, just tiptoeing my way to get to where I want to be.”
He also told her that including the clip that sees him struggle slightly skating backwards was important to keep.
“Being an amputee is not the easiest thing in the world and it takes a lot of people some time to build up the confidence to try new things,” Cunningham said. “I got a text, it was like, ‘Why didn’t you edit you skating backwards like that?’ I wanted to show that I still struggle to do things too, and it’s all trial and error. That’s why I left it.”