Before the first anniversary of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, we wanted to share the inspirational comeback story of one of its survivors: Ryan Straschnitzki, who didn’t give up on his hockey dreams despite a spinal cord injury.
When tragedy struck
On April 6, 2018, sixteen people were killed and thirteen injured when a coach bus struck a semi-trailer truck in Saskatchewan. Most of the dead and injured were players from the Humboldt Broncos, a junior ice hockey team that plays in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL).
Ryan Straschnitzki, a nineteen-year-old Bronco rookie, was texting his girlfriend when he heard the bus driver scream “Whoa!” He blacked out and woke up later with intense pain, surrounded by his teammates’ bodies. As he tried to stand up to help them, he realized he couldn’t move.
Rushed to a Saskatoon hospital, he received extensive surgery for his severely-damaged spinal cord, amongst other injuries.
A cutting-edge surgical procedure
This spring, Straschnitzki plans to undergo an experimental surgical procedure that he hopes can restore some movement below the level of his injury. A stimulation implant would be placed in his back. With the use of a small device, the implant sends electrical currents to the spinal cord to stimulate nerves and move his limbs.
Calgary surgeon Dr. Richi Gill, who had the operation after he was paralyzed in an accident, inspired Straschnitzki to try the procedure, which is still very new: Only a half dozen Canadians have had it done.
Uyen Nguyen, Co-Founder & Executive Director at Syn.ap.tic: Spinal Cord Injury and Neuro Rehabilitation Centre in Calgary says: “It is the rehab afterwards that is arduous and tedious and that’s where Ryan’s strength and fortitude come in. You have to commit.”
Ryan Straschnitzki is a bit nervous, but he is determined: “There’s always going to be nerves with everything you do and I think I just have to overcome that — keeping that positive mindset, pushing myself every day and having the hope that I can walk again.”
When the athletes’ mindset helps to cope
When it comes to that positive mindset, Straschnitzki’s background as an athlete is key. Hall of Famers and Olympic champions, backed by decades of empirical research, all agree that the proper use of sports psychology strategies can significantly improve an athlete’s performance… and their recovery, when the worst happens.
Right after the crash, Straschnitzki didn’t yield to self-pity. For him, the hardest part was not being able to go to his coach and teammates’ funerals because of his condition. He says, “All of this [the recovery], I am doing it for them.”
He also sets himself some challenges to ensure progress in his recovery: “Each day, I make sure I spend less time in my wheelchair than the day before”.
Another strength of Straschnitzki resides in the fact that he is well-surrounded. In every recovery story, loved ones play an important part. “I text my [Bronco] buddies to make sure they’re doing OK. We just keep in touch and are there for each other.”
Straschnitzki can also count on his family. His parents kick-started a fundraising campaign for renovations to the family home to make it more accessible for Ryan. His father says he tries his best to “keep him positive and to remind him that nothing is set in stone. If we find a little door, we’ll go through it.”
Straschnitzki’s attitude even impresses the medical teams who took care of him. Seeing how he is coping with what is likely a permanent injury, Dr. Fourney, the neurosurgeon who was on call at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon the night of the hockey team’s bus accident, says: “His message of strength is inspiring.” Dr. Thomas, an orthopaedic surgeon and a specialist in spinal injuries at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, adds: “Ryan is very open, motivated to tackle this head-on, and he has a sense of resiliency. It’s important to be motivated.”
His Olympic dreams are stronger than ever
Before the crash, Straschnitzki had hoped to play university hockey or make it to the National Hockey League. From the moment he knew he’d likely never walk again, he wanted to make the Paralympics. His goal is to represent Canada on the national sledge hockey team.
Sledge hockey became an official event in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway. Instead of skates, players use double-blade sledges that allow the puck to pass beneath. Players use two sticks, which have a spike-end for pushing and a blade-end for shooting.
His coach, former national sledge team member Chris Cederstrand, says he’s rarely seen anyone as involved as Straschnitzki: “For him to have that kind of ambition so soon after everything happened … it’s something I’ve never encountered before, and he’s just unrelenting on the ice.”
Straschnitzki adds: “Really it’s been a goal of mine to wear the Canadian flag on my chest at some point in my life”. If the hard work continues, there’s no reason why he can’t achieve his new dream.