B.C. hockey star's new foundation aims to improve screening for sudden cardiac death

Former Vancouver Giants captain Craig Cunningham had a full cardiac arrest before a game on Nov. 19, 2016.

Former Vancouver Giants captain Craig Cunningham launches All Heart Foundation after 2016 cardiac arrest

Craig Cunningham, pictured during the Arizona Coyotes' training camp, has launched a foundation that focuses on preventing sudden cardiac arrest. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A former Vancouver Giants captain who nearly died of sudden cardiac arrest on the ice has launched a non-profit foundation that promotes prevention and screening of the condition.

Craig Cunningham was just 26 when he collapsed before the opening puck drop of an American Hockey League game in Tuscon, Ariz., on Nov. 19, 2016.

"Everyone kind of thinks that cardiac arrest happens to old and out-of-shape and whatever kind of people are out there and they're happening every day," he said.

"There [are] a lot of athletes and people you think are in top of the top when it comes to conditioning, and they're suffering from these things as well," he said.

The quick-thinking of medical professionals and local firefighters — who, by chance, were on the ice to perform the national anthem that night — are credited with saving the life of Cunningham, who at the time was captain of the Tuscon Roadrunners.

Cunningham's cardiac arrest affected the circulation to his left leg and it was later amputated. Doctors don't know what caused his heart to suddenly fail.

"It's kind of crazy to think that even as a professional athlete at the top of the top, I never had some of the testing done that is out there," he told CBC News.

Craig Cunningham suffered a cardiac arrest on the ice before a hockey game, while playing for Tucson Roadrunners. (The All Heart Foundation)

In Canada, only 10 per cent of sudden cardiac arrest patients survive, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. In the United States, almost 900 people die each day from the condition, according to figures from the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation.

To raise awareness of the condition, Cunningham launched The All Heart Foundation with the Tuscon-based cardiothoracic surgeon who saved his life, Dr. Zain Khalpey.

The foundation focuses on using smart technology to predict sudden cardiac death.

Some of its projects include building on wearable technology like smartwatch screening apps that detect irregular heart rates, or finger-stick blood screen tests for high-performance athletes. 

"If you can get in there and get screened and if they can find some abnormalities with you before it actually hits you, obviously there is a lot of medication and procedures that can be done to save the heart and change the negative effects that are happening to it," said Cunningham. 

Dr. Zain Khalpey and Craig Cunningham have created a foundation with the goal of preventing sudden cardiac arrests. (The All Heart Foundation)

On his road to recovery, the Trail, B.C., native met many families who lost loved ones — including children — to sudden cardiac arrest.

Instead of focusing on CPR, as many foundations already have, Cunningham was inspired to do something different. 

"Say we just prevent one person from having it, then I think the whole thing has been worth it," he said. 

'Something really good has come out of this'

Khalpey said he was inspired to get involved with the foundation because of Cunningham's tenacity and relentless drive. 

"It's what also fuelled our friendship," he told CBC News.

"He was never angry, which is what sometimes drives people. He was just pure, it was just amazing to see and it became very alluring for the staff around and he became inspiring," he said. 

Khalpey said Cunningham has also inspired many patients. 

He said a 17-year-old who recently received an artificial heart told him that Cunningham was the reason she got through her hospital stay. 

"That's the kind of impact this guy has."

Craig Cunningham skated for the first time in five months on March 31 with a little support from teammate Conor Garland from the Tucson Roadrunners. (Chris Hook/Tucson Roadrunners)

Cunningham, who appeared in 63 NHL games with Boston and Arizona, still works in professional hockey as a scout for the Arizona Coyotes.

"It has been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of travel. I think I've watched 130 hockey games already," he said laughing.

While the last year has been a roller coaster of emotions, he said he's finally adjusted to his prosthetic leg. 

"The only thing holding me back now is myself."