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This article was published 21/11/2016 (267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
JC Lipon skated to centre ice, expecting to battle Craig Cunningham for positioning and puck possession off the opening faceoff.
Instead, the young Manitoba Moose forward watched as Cunningham collapsed in front of him, triggering a frantic scene Saturday night in Arizona that all who witnessed won’t easily forget.
Medical staff rushed into action, cutting off Cunningham’s Tucson Roadrunners jersey and beginning chest compressions. The game was postponed as hockey took a back seat to a life-and-death struggle.
"You didn’t really know what was going on, because it was just before the draw. I was out there lining up against him. I thought maybe he wiped out and was maybe a little embarrassed about the situation. But then he stayed down. You kind of just go into shock. You never want to see a guy helpless there on the ice," a visibly shaken Lipon said Monday after the Moose practised at the MTS Centre.
Cunningham, 26, is in critical but stable condition, the Roadrunners announced Monday afternoon. There have been reports the team’s captain suffered a heart attack, but officials have not confirmed the source of his medical episode.
Lipon knows Cunningham personally, as they played junior hockey against each other in British Columbia and had faced each other several times in the American Hockey League.
"He just wasn’t moving very much. Everyone kind of rushed out to him and I kind of just backed off a bit. I just kind of watched from afar. Obviously it was very scary and tough to watch," said Lipon. "There’s no way you can play a hockey game after that and be focused. Both teams were really worried. There’s a time to play hockey and that wasn’t one of them."
'It just goes to show you how precious life is'
Moose defenceman Brenden Kichton said Monday he "felt sick" at witnessing a player he knows from off-season training go down like that.
"On the bench when they were taking him off and compressing his chest, I felt like throwing up," said Kichton. "When I saw them wheel him out I personally lost it. I had to get undressed quickly and I had to leave."
Kichton said he immediately called his girlfriend and parents from the rink while leaning on his teammates for support.
"We were just talking with our teammates and talking about how good a guy he was, how precious life is and some of the things that we think are big deals really are not in the scheme of things," he said. "It just goes to show you how precious life is and you can’t take anything for granted. He was a healthy player and treated his body right."
Ondrej Pavelec was on the ice Saturday, set to start in goal for the Moose. He said the incident brought back memories of his own medical scare in October 2010 — the year before the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets — when he fainted just before the start of a Thrashers game against the Washington Capitals. Pavelec would ultimately spend three days in hospital and said tests never revealed the source of his issue, only to rule out any heart problems.
"Of course I was thinking about it right away," Pavelec said Monday. "I think I was lucky in that I woke up in like 15 minutes. I was lucky I could play hockey and I was back in 10 days. Scary moment. Scary for his family, scary for everybody in the building and who watched the game. There’s not much to say right now. Hopefully everything’s going to be OK. It wasn’t good at all."
Pavelec said there was no question the Manitoba-Tucson game had to be postponed after the incident.
"I couldn’t move. I was on the bench and couldn’t move my legs. There was no way we would play the game, that’s for sure," he said. "It was bad. The atmosphere was really bad. There wasn’t much to say in the dressing room. We were all waiting for news, for updates. Everybody was worried about him and his family. You can imagine how it is for his family."
Moose captain Patrice Cormier said Cunningham is universally respected in the game, as evident by the outpouring of support from hockey players through social media the past few days.
"I know guys that knew him, obviously everybody has nothing but good words. Just a great person. At this point who cares about hockey, right? You just hope that he’s doing well and that he gets better," said Cormier.
Moose coach Pascal Vincent said Monday the team is working with players who may need some assistance in the wake of what they witnessed.
"There’s no way to describe it. You’re not prepared for that. You don’t really know what’s going on and it was very tough. Very difficult for all of us," he said. "All I can say is our thoughts and prayers go to the family and we’ll take care of our players individually."