Christian Petersen/Getty Images Craig Cunningham

November 19, 2016, was a regular game day for Craig Cunningham, a minor-league hockey player working to get back to the NHL where he had played 63 games for the Boston Bruins and Arizona Coyotes in the previous three seasons.

Playing with the Tucson Roadrunners in the AHL, Cunningham woke up and headed to the rink for the morning skate. Then he went home for some food and a nap before returning to Tucson Convention Center.  He warmed up again, got in his Roadrunners gear and lined up for the national anthem.

Then he collapsed on the ice.

The crowd held its breath. Medics rushed onto the ice, cut away Cunningham's jersey to perform chest compressions and rushed him to the nearest hospital. The game against the Manitoba Moose was postponed. Fans went home unsure whether Cunningham would make it through the night.

Craig Cunningham

Thanks to a life-saving therapy that involved a pump to circulate his blood, Cunningham survived. The process affected his circulation, which resulted in his left leg being amputated a month later, but he had beaten the odds.

Cunningham had suffered sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), which is different from a heart attack. According to Dr. Mathew Hutchinson, a cardiac electrophysiologist with the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center, more than 90 percent of SCA instances lead to death.

"In most people, SCA is like an electrical malfunction of the heart," Hutchinson said. "It's like somebody switches the electricity off. We can't predict when it will happen and who will have it.

"The frustrating part about Craig is there is nothing unique about his heart. Craig is emblematic of the majority of people who have SCA because we don't know why it happened."

Hutchinson said SCA strikes 350,000 Americans annually.

Craig Cunningham

Support for Cunningham and his family poured in from across the globe, particularly from the Tucson community that he now calls home.

"The people in Tucson have just been awesome," Cunningham said. "They're supportive and amazing. It's very humbling to walk around the streets and be at games and have people come up to you and share their stories and to get to be able to inspire and help people."

Now, Cunningham advocates for SCA while continuing to work in hockey as a pro scout for the Coyotes.

"I think it's important now that I'm in a position where I can find guys and I can help guys get to the level that I had and help dreams come true," Cunningham said.

Cunningham is well known around the hockey community, which helps immensely with recruiting the right guys for the team. As a 27-year-old, Cunningham is still young to connect with younger players.

His colleagues see his impact, too.

"Craig was a smart hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game," Coyotes GM John Chayka said. "He's brought those same qualities to the Coyotes in his new role and has done a great job for us."

Cunningham is on the road for his job, traveling to a handful of states in the western region. He has a defibrillator, a metallic device implanted under the skin to monitor his heart rhythm 24/7.

Craig Cunningham

"Should an abnormal heart rhythm emerge, it detects it immediately and it charges up and treats it by delivering a shock to the chest to restore normal rhythm," Hutchinson said.

Cunningham is aware that he barely escaped death. When he collapsed, he had the on-site medical support of both teams, and national-anthem performers that night happened to be a group of local firefighters.

Cunningham was lucky to be in such good company and said that he often wonders whether he would have survived if he played for a different team, lived in a different city and gone to a different hospital, among so many other "what if's."

For this reason, he encourages all to go to a CPR class so that as many people as possible are equipped to potentially save someone's life. In the meantime, he continues to try to regain normalcy in his life, despite it being completely different than it was a year ago.

"You have to move on and live your life, or else, what's the point of surviving SCA?" he said.

For more information about SCA and life with a defibrillator, visit SICDsystem.com.

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