Craig Cunningham grateful to be back in the NHL — and to be alive

Craig Cunningham played 63 NHL games for the Bruins and Coyotes.
Craig Cunningham played 63 NHL games for the Bruins and Coyotes.2015 FILE/CHRIS CARLSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

In his third year on the job, the routine has become pleasantly familiar.

He flies into a city in western North America, such as Denver, to see pros, or Kelowna, to scout juniors. He gets in a workout at the hotel. He arrives at the arena, finds his assigned seat, and pulls out his notebook, critiquing the players on the ice for the benefit of his team.

Craig Cunningham is back in the NHL, and he is grateful.

“You think, ‘[Expletive], at 26, my life could have been over,’ ” he said. “We’re all lucky to be on this earth. I was incredibly lucky to be in the NHL. I still am.”


The former Bruins winger, who nearly died on the ice after suffering a heart attack before a 2016 minor league game in Tucson, now works as a scout for the Arizona Coyotes. That he is living is a highly improbable outcome, made possible by elite medical care and Cunningham’s tenacity.

Cunningham, who played 63 games for Boston and Arizona, was a max-effort player. The undersized Trail, British Columbia, forward broke out in his final season with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and was picked 97th overall by the Bruins in 2010. His maturity and drive earned him the captaincy in Providence at age 24.

“One of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever coached,” said Bruce Cassidy, Cunningham’s coach in Providence from 2011-15. “One of the best people I’ve ever coached.”

Which is why it hit like a tornado in Boston, Arizona, and elsewhere around the NHL when Cunningham collapsed on the ice before a Nov. 19, 2016 game. For reasons that remain unknown, the otherwise healthy Cunningham had gone into ventricular fibrillation — his heart stopped delivering blood. Medical personnel at the rink, Tucson Convention Center, and nearby St. Mary’s Hospital performed about 85 minutes of CPR and injected him with epinephrine and norepinephrine. Nothing helped. The Roadrunners’ captain was in deep trouble.


Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson was the only facility in Southern Arizona with an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. It acts as an artificial lung. After getting a call from St. Mary’s, Dr. Zain Khalpey mobilized his team to use it on Cunningham. He required a rare procedure to decompress his heart, which had been done three times before.

Cunningham spent 10 weeks in the intensive care unit at Banner-UMC, undergoing more than 15 major surgeries. His left leg was under duress after the insertion of ECMO tubes. An infection forced its amputation below the knee on Dec. 24, 2016.

But Cunningham returned to the ice two years later, skating with the aid of a prosthetic attachment.

“It’s hard to talk about, the type of guy he is,” said Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, a close friend and former teammate. “His character is second to none. There’s not many guys I’ve played with I’d put up there with him. His commitment to come back and step on the ice again is something you don’t see every day. He’s got a big heart.”

Cunningham’s drive is two-pronged. With Khalpey, he established the All Heart Foundation, aimed at preventing sudden cardiac arrest. He meets with fellow amputees whenever possible. He also has found it easier to deal with the rest of the public, shedding the shame he felt over staring, and creating teaching moments.


“Kids are like, ‘What happened to you?’ ” Cunningham said. “I tell them, ‘I’m like Iron Man. I have a metal leg. I got really sick and lost my leg, but just because I lost my leg doesn’t mean I’m any different than you.’ ”

It has been hard-won, but Cunningham says he is at peace. He sees his mother, Heather, and two brothers, Mitch and Ryan, more than his playing career ever allowed. He can run 2 to 3 miles, play golf, bike, squat, lunge, and skate. That work ethic, which helped a 5-foot-9-inch forward score 97 points in his penultimate junior season, remains strong, more than ever.

“They came out twice and told my mom that I was basically dead,” he said. “I came back. Don’t let anybody ever tell you you can or can’t do something. You need to figure that out for yourself. There are fewer restrictions than you think.”

Cunningham recently re-upped with the Coyotes on a second two-year scouting contract. The management side intrigues him. Since he has many fans across the NHL, his opportunities won’t soon dry up.

It will soon be three years since he collapsed. He faces challenges every day, but they grow ever smaller.


Shattenkirk off to a fast start

Kevin Shattenkirk, a BU product, has four goals in seven games for the Lightning this season.
Kevin Shattenkirk, a BU product, has four goals in seven games for the Lightning this season.Chris O’Meara/AP/Associated Press

Kevin Shattenkirk makes no bones about it: He was angry over being cut loose by the Rangers.

“A lot,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”

He was tight with his teammates. It was tough to lose with his hometown team, but the New Rochelle, N.Y., product accepted the rebuild. He tried to be a good soldier, say the right things, take young players under his wing. He felt they were turning a corner.


The Rangers’ loss has been the Lightning’s gain.

Shattenkirk, who scored Thursday night in Boston, entered the weekend second among NHL defensemen in goals (4-1—5 overall). The former Boston University Terrier hasn’t produced double-digit goals since 2016-17, when he parlayed five 40-point seasons with St. Louis into a four-year, $26.6 million deal in Manhattan. In Tampa, he has been solid as a defender, skating next to another ex-Blueshirt, Ryan McDonagh.

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, after signing Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba to big-money deals, and adding right-shot blue liners Trouba and Adam Fox via trades, bought out the 30-year-old Shattenkirk’s remaining two years at $6.65 million.

Tampa Bay, which let veterans Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi walk, took a one-year flyer for $1.75 million on Shattenkirk. His long-term future with the Bolts is unclear. More immediately, he and the Lighting will visit the Rangers Oct. 29.

“I try to remind myself of what I felt in August when everything happened. I think there was a certain drive and fuel, a fire that was lit up inside me,” he said. “I don’t want to forget about that. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be with this team.”


Futures RFAs are happy to deal

The Devils’ Nico Hischier, a restricted free agent, signed a five-year deal with the club on Friday.
The Devils’ Nico Hischier, a restricted free agent, signed a five-year deal with the club on Friday.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/Getty Images

Maybe the NHL and the players don’t have the stomach for another summer of unknowns. That might be one explanation for impending restricted free agents finding common ground with their teams, steadily thinning an RFA herd that last cycle remained thick into training camp.


The latest to sign is Nico Hischier, who inked a seven-year, $50.75 million extension with the Devils on Friday. The 20-year-old center, taken first overall in 2017, is under contract in Newark through 2027.

Hischier’s $7.25 million tag, which begins next season, ranks ahead of Arizona wing Clayton Keller (eight years, $7.15 million per) and Chicago winger Alex DeBrincat (three years, $6.4 million), the latter a solid bargain for someone who pumped in 69 goals over his first two seasons. The only one in next year’s RFA class ahead of Hischier in price is Ottawa cornerstone Thomas Chabot, the defenseman last month signing a max-length eight-year deal at $8 million per.

While lacking the star power of this past season, the RFA class of 2020 is still heavy with notable names. Victor “Goalofsson” Olofsson, whose six power-play strikes helped the Sabres (6-1-1) to an early lead over the Bruins in the Atlantic, and linemate Sam Reinhart are due, as is Casey Mittelstadt. Montreal (Max Domi), Dallas (Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa), Tampa Bay (Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli), the Islanders (Mathew Barzal), Columbus (Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson), Colorado (Samuel Girard), Detroit (Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou) and yes, Boston (Jake DeBrusk) have work to do to keep their young building blocks in place.


The tough times continue for Wild

Joel Eriksson Ek was injured Friday after blocking a shot against the Canadiens.
Joel Eriksson Ek was injured Friday after blocking a shot against the Canadiens.Fred Chartrand/AP/The Canadian Press via AP

It has been a rough start for the Wild, but they are toughing it out. Case in point: Joel Eriksson Ek.

In one penalty-killing shift in Montreal on Thursday, he blocked three slappers from Shea Weber, long swinging one of the league’s heaviest hammers. Eriksson Ek returned to the game after treatment but left the Bell Centre in a walking boot. He wasn’t the only one limping away: Teammate Jason Zucker took friendly fire from Jared Spurgeon in the same period.

“It was brave by him obviously, standing in there,” said Weber, who owns the three hardest shots in NHL All-Star Skills Competition history (108.5, 108.1, and 107.8 miles per hour) by a player not named Zdeno Chara (108.8). “We’ve all blocked shots and know how much it hurts, and for him not to block just one but get a couple more — two in the foot and one in the shin pad — he’s definitely feeling it, for sure. I admire what he did. It’s brave and it’s not easy.”

The former Trappist Wonks lost to the Habs that night, opening the season 1-6-0 for the first time in a decade. Coach Bruce Boudreau, who has made Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato, and Victor Rask healthy scratches of late, hasn’t had key offseason addition Mats Zuccarello because of a lower-body injury. But Boudreau’s team is fumbling away pucks, losing battles, and looks out of sorts. New GM Bill Guerin may be patient and take the long view, but Boudreau’s seat is anything but Minnesnowta cold.

Tanev has been getting the calls

The Penguins raised eyebrows when they committed six years and $21 million to Brandon Tanev, a fifth-year forward who has yet to crack the 30-point barrier. Handing out generous contracts to depth players rarely ends well, but Tanev has not disappointed his bosses so far.

As of Friday, the ex-Jet and Providence College Friar had drawn a league-high eight penalties, more than Connor McDavid, Matt Duchene or Jack Eichel. Tanev does it with his considerable speed. He is not a wizardly stickhandler or particularly sharp shooter, but his wheels allow him to seize opportunities around the puck, bursting away from his check. Whistles follow.

He also used that speed to score a shorthanded goal in overtime on Wednesday, giving the Penguins (6-2-0) a win over the Avalanche.

If the Penguins are to survive this run of injuries in early playoff position — and they entered the weekend in first place in the Metropolitan — Tanev’s hard work (and the continued brilliance of Sidney Crosby) will greatly help. The Penguins are without star Evgeni Malkin and expected contributors Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust. All those players are back to skating, though coach Mike Sullivan hasn’t said much about a timetable.

Malkin, who injured his lower back in the first week of the season, may not be back until the end of the month. Galchenyuk’s issues are . . . unique. The Penguins have yet to enjoy a return on the Phil Kessel trade with Arizona because the 25-year-old winger sustained a soft tissue injury in training camp, reportedly a groin ailment. His rehab was delayed because of an allergic reaction — he was bitten by a spider.

How the other half lives

Russian newspaper Sport-Express published a list of the top KHL earners, as translated by Ontario-based writer Andrew Zadarnowski. Sergei Mozyakin, of Metallurg, heads the list with $2.88 million US, paid in 180 million rubles (not including bonuses, as Zadarnowski notes). That would have ranked fifth five years ago, when Ilya Kovalchuk was making $5.5 million and Pavel Datsyuk was at 4.5 million. Datsyuk, now with Automobilist, is the 10th-highest-paid player at $1.6 million.

Considered the second-best league in the world, the KHL claims salaries there are 2½ times higher than other European leagues, though players have consistently reported late payments and the league itself trimmed four financially struggling clubs in the last two seasons. A salary cap of 900 million rubles — or slightly more than $14 million — is coming next season to help competitive balance (powerhouses CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, backed by state-owned oil and energy companies, respectively, are consistently at the top of the table). The league also reports plans to expand both east (Japan, Uzbekistan, a second Chinese club) and west (France and Germany are possibilities), though nothing is imminent.

Carlson earning his keep

Capitals defenseman John Carlson is tied for the NHL lead in points (17).
Capitals defenseman John Carlson is tied for the NHL lead in points (17).Tony Gutierrez/AP/Associated Press

When John Carlson signed a monster extension with the Capitals — eight years, $64 million — two summers ago, it was viewed as a sweet deal for a Stanley Cup champion, and a bit of a risk. Carlson, coming off a career-high 15-53—68 line, was not a shutdown defenseman. He still isn’t, but he’s more than earned his dough.

Carlson, whose family moved from Natick to New Jersey when he was 5, set career highs last year in assists (57), points (70), and average ice time (25:04). This season, he’s flying again. With three assists against the Rangers, Carlson tied McDavid for the league scoring lead (17 points). Carlson had at least one point in every game but one. Just power-play guile and trickery? No. Twelve of his first 17 points came at even strength.

Loose pucks

Sub-optimal start for $10 million Panthers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, whose save percentage (.872) ranks third-worst among No. 1s in the league. The only ones beneath him: Devan Dubnyk (.867) and Braden Holtby (.862; not ideal for a contract year) . . . The Kings aren’t getting much from Jack Campbell (.897), but he looks better than Jonathan Quick (league-worst .793). Quick, 33, will be making $5.8 million a year until he’s 37 . . . In positive goaltending news, Carter Hutton (.953) allowed seven goals in his first five starts, and if that continues, Buffalo might just be playing meaningful games in March . . . Entering the weekend, the Bruins employed the league’s second- and fourth-most effective puck-stoppers. Jaroslav Halak (.951 in three starts) and Tuukka Rask (.946 in four) are the most expensive goalie tandem in club history ($9.75 million combined). Worth every penny. Extending Halak on a short deal (with perhaps a half-million bump to $3.25 million) wouldn’t be a bad call, given the lack of proven depth in Boston’s pipeline. Coach Bruce Cassidy, if asked, would sign off. “Is the top guy playing well? That’s your first worry,” he said. “Second part is, does your No. 2 get enough work to stay sharp? Right now, we don’t have a problem with either one of those. So yes, I’ve got more time to worry about other things.” . . . Johnny Bucyk will present honoree Chara at the Sports Museum’s annual Tradition ceremony on Nov. 20. The museum, closed for the summer because of renovations to TD Garden, reopens Oct. 21. For more info and tickets: sportsmuseum.org or 617-624-1232 . . . Big news in soccer: Petr Cech, the retired world-class goalkeeper for Arsenal and Chelsea, decided to trade his cleats for skates and pads. While maintaining a day job as an adviser for Chelsea, the 37-year-old signed as the third goalie for the Guildford Phoenix, in the fourth tier of British hockey, the National Ice Hockey League South 2. He debuted last Sunday against the Swindon Wildcats 2. Wearing No. 39 — for Czech hero Dominik Hasek — Cech kept it 2-2 until a shootout, when he saved three of five attempts to give the Flames a win. Cech said he grew up a hockey fan but his parents couldn’t afford the gear, leading him instead to a cheaper sport. Heard that one before.

Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattyports. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.