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Craig Cunningham gets warm welcome, makes bittersweet return to Coyotes

Craig Cunningham (22), the 26-year-old captain of the Tucson Roadrunners, the Arizona Coyotes' AHL affiliate, gets a hug from Coyotes team captain Shane Doan, left, after Cunningham dropped the puck in an opening ceremony as former Coyotes player and current Minnesota Wild player Martin Hanzal, right, looks on prior to an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 8, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. Just five months ago Cunningham was fighting for his life after collapsing on the ice during pregame warm-ups. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Exactly one month ago Saturday, Tucson Roadrunners captain Craig Cunningham began walking again.

It was a big moment for the man they call “Cunny” who collapsed on the ice prior to his team’s game on Nov. 19. Cunningham has since been on the road to recovery, and he says he’s still undergoing outpatient therapy since that frightening evening when his heart stopped.

He lost part of his leg. He nearly lost his life.

That didn’t stop him from taking the ice on Saturday, hours before the Coyotes – a team with whom he once earned NHL playing time – played their season finale against the Minnesota Wild.

“It’s been a long journey,” Cunningham said. “You know, I was hoping the next time I’d come to this arena it’d be with my bag. I’d rather be playing. But the Coyotes are a great organization. They’ve been incredible.”

Cunningham’s playing days in hockey seem to be over, at least at the professional level. But his visit with the Coyotes on Saturday probably won’t be the last time he makes an appearance at Gila River Arena.

“I’d like to be the owner,” he said with a grin. “I’m not quite there yet. But I think I’d like to start – I’m going to go back to Calgary, the area where I’m from. I’d like to start scouting and help the organization from a different standpoint.”

Not only is he back in a hockey arena, he’s getting healthier. After what he called “dark” nights in a hospital, he spent 10 days in a rehab center before his current outpatient therapy program.

Both the return to hockey and the effort to get healthy signify a battle Craig’s had to fight – one that embodies why players and staff in the Coyotes organization speak so highly of his character and courage.

For that character, it was announced this week Cunningham won the Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award, given to the AHL player who “best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.”

“A great guy, a guy that everybody gets along with, a guy that – no matter what – he’s going to show up and give you everything he’s got,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett said. “And (he’s) had to work for everything he’s got. He’s one of those guys that, that’s the epitome of character. That’s who he is.”

It’s clear why Cunningham’s fight for his life in the hospital earned him the “CunnyCan” hashtag. Those who know him personally and professionally know he’s a strong-willed person, even if he has missed hockey dearly.

“Hockey’s been my whole life since I was 3 years old,” Cunningham said. “To say I miss it every single minute of every day is probably an understatement.”

Nonetheless, in his appearance with the media on Saturday, he joked with reporters and kept a humble, grateful attitude.

Not long after, he came out to the ice to a standing ovation from fans. He walked to center ice, posed for a photo, and dropped the puck.

Cunny’s back.

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