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If not for Craig Cunningham’s spirit — and the care he received — he would be dead

Chris Carlson/AP/Associated Press

In 2010, the Bruins had no choice but to draft Tyler Seguin with the second overall pick. The explosive center with the limitless offensive ceiling was coming off a 106-point season for the Plymouth Whalers. He was named the OHL’s most outstanding player.

Three rounds later, the Bruins drafted Craig Cunningham for a different reason.

With the No. 97 pick, Cunningham became Black-and-Gold property because of a tenacity that let him squeeze maximum production (97 points in his draft year) out of a minimalist package. That same savagery is one reason Cunningham is alive.

On Wednesday at Tucson’s Banner-University Medical Center, Cunningham made his first public appearance since nearly dying on Nov. 19 before the Tucson Roadrunners’ game against the Manitoba Moose. The ex-Bruins prospect, who played 34 NHL games for his original organization, spoke quietly but firmly to describe the likely end of his playing career.


“As of right now, I think I’m probably done,” Cunningham said in a news conference. “We’ll see when I get back from rehab how it goes. As of right now, with the level I was playing at, I don’t think I’ll ever get back to playing pro. But anything can happen.”

Cunningham knows that firsthand. If not for the 26-year-old’s spirit and conditioning and the world-class care he received, Cunningham would be dead.

For the past month, everyone in the hockey community had been thinking about Cunningham, from longtime friend and former junior teammate Milan Lucic to Torey Krug, who played with the forward for one season in Providence. The news was that Cunningham was in rough shape initially but had stabilized after treatment.

On Wednesday, Cunningham, mother Heather, and his doctors disclosed the degree of the trauma he had suffered. For reasons that remain unknown, an otherwise fit Cunningham had gone into ventricular fibrillation. That may be medical jargon to most of us. But the folks in white coats don’t like those words. One doctor I know bluntly explained the gravity of the condition.


“V fib,” the doctor wrote, “is not compatible with life.”

Cunningham’s heart had become useless. Upon reaching Cunningham after his collapse, Roadrunners trainer Deven Alves recognized his player was in deep trouble. So did the firefighters on the ice, who were performing the national anthem as part of a bagpipe band. Alves cut away Cunningham’s jersey and equipment to begin chest compressions.

According to the Arizona Daily Star, medical personnel, both at Tucson Convention Center, the team’s rink, and nearby St. Mary’s Hospital, performed CPR for approximately 85 minutes. Cunningham was also injected with epinephrine and norepinephrine. Nothing was improving Cunningham’s condition. His lungs were bleeding. Because it was not getting enough oxygen, the blood in Cunningham’s heart was black.

Dr. Zain Khalpey, who had gotten the call from Dr. George Haloftis from St. Mary’s, initiated his team to use an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine (ECMO). Banner-UMC in Tucson is the only facility in Southern Arizona with the device. The ECMO circulates a patient’s blood through an oxygenator, which acts as an artificial lung. Most patients who need an ECMO are likely to die without it.

Khalpey and his team started the procedure at St. Mary’s. Cunningham was then transported to Banner-UMC, where he required more surgery to decompress his heart, which was enlarged because of his condition. According to the Star, the procedure, which also requires an ECMO, had been done only three other times.


Cunningham’s kidneys were affected. According to TSN, Cunningham’s left leg is compromised following insertion of ECMO tubes. Upon discharge from Banner-UMC, Cunningham will require rehabilitation before going home.

But Cunningham is alive, partly because of the fierceness that got him into the NHL for 63 games, and because of the help he received.

“They caught oncoming problems in their early stages, made difficult decisions without hesitation, and acted effectively under extreme pressure when they were caught between a rock and a hard place,” Heather Cunningham said. “They had run out of options and had to create new options by pushing the boundaries of things they have tried and implemented before. Most of all, they have refused to give up in spite of hopelessness. They’ve given Craig a chance to recover that continues to exceed anything that could ever have been expected. These people are nothing short of a gift to mankind. I will remember the gift they have given me every time I look at my son.”


Backes excelsat deflections

Of his eight goals, David Backes has deflected two five-on-five shots past opposing goalies.
Of his eight goals, David Backes has deflected two five-on-five shots past opposing goalies.Charles Krupa/AP

In Boston, when it comes to tipping shots, there is David Backes and everybody else. None of the Bruins matches Backes’s skill at staking a net-front claim, seeing a puck approach, and tipping it in. Backes is among the best in the business, belonging to a class that includes Joe Pavelski and Thomas Vanek.

Ken Hitchcock, Backes’s former coach, credits the forward’s excellence as a schoolboy baseball star in developing his hand-eye coordination. It is a craft Backes makes appear easy because of the work he applies at his trade. Backes regularly practices tipping during and after on-ice sessions.


Yet for as good as Backes is at tipping pucks into the net, it’s something he doesn’t get to do as often during five-on-five play. Of his eight goals, Backes has deflected two five-on-five shots past opposing goalies (Sergei Bobrovsky and Roberto Luongo).

The opportunities that took place at a more regular clip during Backes’s first years are decreasing because of how coaches emphasize blocking shots, occupying the net-front area, and reducing clean looks for net-front tippers — to say nothing of how good goalies have become.

“It used to be there was a defenseman or two that were really keen on getting in lanes and blocking shots,” said Backes, who became an NHL regular in 2006-07. “Now, everybody on every team is expected to be in lanes and negate pucks from getting to a net-front guy.”

Pinpoint accuracy is required for players to get clean tips on net. Against the Panthers on Thursday night, Ryan Spooner had to thread a wrister from the right half-wall through two layers — Vincent Trocheck as the man-on-man closer, then Michael Matheson and Colton Sceviour as secondary blockers. Even then, had Backes not gotten ideal body position against Mark Pysyk, it would have been hard for him to tip Spooner’s shot into the net.

It’s easier for Backes to find space during power plays, where he’s tipped two shots into the net. Four penalty killers don’t occupy as much space as five bodies, whether at the points or down low, to reduce deflection opportunities. Five-on-five play, however, is another thing. Regardless of whether teams play zone defense or man-to-man, shots are challenged and tippers are boxed out of position. For players such as Backes, what was once a dangerous component of their arsenals does not regularly come into play.


It’s prompted Backes to adjust his net-front strategy. Because pucks aren’t getting through cleanly, Backes is identifying different soft spots in which to set up his stick. Sometimes he flashes the blade of his stick outside the shooting lane. Even from a bad angle, a redirected puck can do more damage than one that thuds off a shot-blocker.

Backes is also repositioning himself instead of pitching his tent in front of the net. Sometimes he looks for openings higher in the slot to give himself better odds of getting his stick on the puck. He’s also turning to face the goalie instead of operating almost exclusively with his back to the net. When shooting lanes close down, point men fire pucks off the end boards. Upon an active carom, forward-facing grinders are positioned better for a quick shovel past the goalie than those with their backs turned toward the net.

“If everyone’s fronting you to try and block the shot, you can put it off the back end wall and have it bounce in front of the net,” Backes said. “Then you’re in a better position to box them out in front for those loose pucks. Just different tactics you can start — action, counteraction — against some of those tactics.”


Lucic strugglingat even strength

Half of Milan Lucic’s production has taken place on the power play.
Half of Milan Lucic’s production has taken place on the power play.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

Through 35 games, Milan Lucic is Edmonton’s No. 3 scorer with 10 goals and 14 assists. The ex-Bruin is on pace to score 56 points, almost right in line with his 20-35—55 output last season with Los Angeles.

Half of Lucic’s production, however, has taken place on the power play. In Edmonton’s 3-2 win over Arizona on Wednesday, Lucic scored his fourth power-play goal by hammering home a close-range strike on Mike Smith. Lucic is averaging 2:59 of power-play time per game, second-most on the team behind Connor McDavid (3:11). The left wing is seeing more man-advantage opportunities than he did in LA, where he averaged 2:07 of PP time per game.

The curious thing about Lucic’s first year as an Oiler is how he hasn’t produced with the same efficiency at even strength, especially considering he’s been riding with McDavid and Jordan Eberle on Edmonton’s first line. You would think a pee-wee could average a point per game with McDavid as a center. But it hasn’t been that easy for Lucic. The former Bruin is averaging a career-worst 1.22 five-on-five points per 60 minutes of play, according to www.corsica.hockey. In comparison, McDavid is averaging 2.64 points per 60.

It hasn’t been easy for Lucic to play 200-foot hockey at McDavid’s pace. Last season, Lucic played with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, two heavier centers who play at normal tempo. Lucic averaged 2.11 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play. Todd McLellan has tolerated Lucic’s even-strength inconsistency. The Edmonton coach may be running out of patience.

Shields up

It’s a good bet that Adam McQuaid, who’s been wearing a shield for most of December, will make it a permanent addition to his wardrobe. McQuaid had not been a regular visor man. He originally put one on to protect some cuts from additional damage. But the shield came to McQuaid’s aid on Dec. 12 in Montreal when a collision with Andrew Shaw and Phillip Danault sent the Bruins defenseman facefirst into the glass. The visor helped absorb some of the impact. McQuaid had been wary of wearing a visor because of his fighting duties. But with fighting’s decline and how some scrappers are also shielded up, McQuaid may do the same. That leaves Zdeno Chara and Matt Beleskey as the only Bruins to play shield-free.

All-Star honor for Bourque

Ex-Bruin Chris Bourque will be one of two captains in the AHL All-Star Game, which will be held Jan. 30 in Allentown, Pa. Veteran Ryan Craig will be the other captain. At the time of his naming, Bourque was the league’s active scoring leader with 604 points in 610 games between Hersey, Hartford, Providence, and Portland. The son of Ray Bourque could conclude his playing career as one of the AHL’s best players ever. If he stays healthy, Bourque could approach the 857-point threshold set by former Hershey teammate and fellow Massachusetts native Keith Aucoin, the AHL’s No. 7 all-time scorer.

Americans dismiss DeBrincat

Last December at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, during preparation for the World Junior Championship, Alex DeBrincat was the No. 1 right wing alongside Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk. Toronto picked Matthews first overall in 2016. Tkachuk went sixth overall to Calgary. Both teenagers are in the NHL for the first of many seasons. Things haven’t gone as well for their former linemate. DeBrincat, picked 39th overall by Chicago in 2016, was cut on Thursday from the Americans’ upcoming world juniors entry. The sturdy right wing entered the evaluation process with 60 points in 28 games for the Erie Otters. His 30 goals were good enough to lead the OHL. But Team USA still considered the 19-year-old not good enough for international competition. The 5-foot-7-inch, 170-pound DeBrincat has always played with an edge because of his size. The unexpected dismissal will not diminish that quality.

Little punch behind Tavares

It’s hard enough for John Tavares to center Josh Bailey and Anders Lee. On deeper teams, neither Bailey nor Lee would be considered first-line wings. The bigger issue is how short the Islanders’ bench becomes after Tavares takes his shift. Coach Jack Capuano’s second line is Andrew Ladd, Alan Quine, and Jason Chimera, hardly a murderers’ row of offense. It means opponents can deploy all their top defensive dogs against Tavares, who is so good that he still manages to create chances. For example, the Bruins rolled out Chara and Patrice Bergeron against No. 91. Against Pittsburgh, Chara and Bergeron were separated, tasked to defend Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, respectively. Tavares is signed through 2018 at a $5.5 million annual song. The Islanders may have to double his payday just to convince him to stay in Brooklyn.

Bishop latest Lightning casualty

Tampa Bay’s injuries continue to pile up. The Lightning’s latest casualty is Ben Bishop, out 3-4 weeks because of a lower-body injury. Tampa is already without Steven Stamkos following knee surgery. If any team can survive injuries to two of its best players, it’s the Lightning. Jonathan Drouin is finding his game to assume some of Stamkos’s production. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa’s future full-time ace, will get a head start on his No. 1 duties by carrying Bishop’s workload. The Lightning are out of the top eight but are closing on the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. Given their talent and experience, the Lightning remain well positioned to overtake the Bruins. At this point, it’s likely that both wild-card teams will be from the Metropolitan Division.

Loose pucks

Fans leave their seats following the cancellation of the Red Wings game against the Hurricanes on Monday.
Fans leave their seats following the cancellation of the Red Wings game against the Hurricanes on Monday.Karl B. DeBlaker/AP

The NHL has yet to reschedule Monday’s postponed game between the Red Wings and Hurricanes, which was scrubbed because of trouble with PNC Arena’s cooling system. According to the News & Observer, $81,145 in repairs were made in August and September for refrigerant leaks. It will be hard for the teams to find a makeup date because of the compressed schedule . . . Former Boston University forward Wade Megan, recalled by St. Louis, scored a goal in his first NHL game on Thursday. The Blues brought up the grinder from the AHL to replace Paul Stastny, who was placed on injured reserve. The 28-year-old Megan has 13 goals and 11 assists in 28 games for Chicago, the Blues’ farm team. Megan was originally Florida’s fifth-round pick in 2009 . . . Ex-Bruin Gregory Campbell, cut loose by the Blue Jackets earlier this month, will play for Team Canada in the upcoming Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. Campbell will be teammates with fellow ex-Bruin Shaone Morrisonn, who has played in the KHL the last three seasons. Morrisonn last played in the NHL for Buffalo in 2011-12 . . . Official publication date of John Scott’s biography, “A Guy Like Me: Fighting To Make The Cut,” is Dec. 27. Scott wrote the book with longtime Sports Illustrated writer Brian Cazeneuve . . . Shawn Thornton’s original plan was to retire after 2016-17 and learn the business side of the league under the watch of Panthers owner Vinnie Viola. That plan will be scotched pending Viola’s confirmation as Secretary of the Army, the post to which he was nominated on Monday. On second thought, the Pentagon may be a more appropriate place than the rink for No. 22 to crack his knuckles.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.