Canadian Paralympian wants to help Humboldt survivor find his way back to hockey

Dominic Cozzolino has never met Humboldt Broncos hockey player Ryan Straschnitzki, but feels he's already a teammate.

Like Ryan Straschnitzki, injury forced Dominic Cozzolino to alter his hockey dream

Dominic Cozzolino was 14 when he was paralzyed in a hockey accident. He switched to para hockey and won a silver medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February. He identifies with Humboldt crash survivor Ryan Straschnitzki and wants to be his teammate at the next Games. (Hockey Canada)

Dominic Cozzolino has never met Humboldt Broncos hockey player Ryan Straschnitzki, but feels he's already a teammate. 

Nine years ago, in March 2009, a 14-year-old Cozzolino was playing with the AA Mississauga Jets when he suffered a spinal fracture after crashing into the boards during a playoff game. He couldn't get up and hours later doctors told him there was a good chance he'd never walk again.

Less than a month ago, Straschnitzki was on his team's bus heading to a playoff game on a rural Saskatchewan highway when tragedy struck. The bus collided with a tractor-trailer, killing 16 and injuring 13 more.

Straschnitzki, 19, is now paralyzed from the chest down.

From his home in Mississauga, the 23-year-old Cozzolino has been watching and reading every update regarding the bus crash, leaving him shocked, saddened and heartbroken. 

Dominic Cozzolino in the hospital following his injury in 2009. (Domenic Cozzolino/Photo)

"The amount of times I've spent with teammates and best friends on a bus going to games, it's crazy to think how things can change so fast and nothing prepares you for that. The bus is like a home on the road," Cozzolino said. 

"I was playing hockey. They were on their way to the hockey game. We were both doing what we love to do."

Cozzolino read a recent CBC News interview where Straschnitzki was talking about getting back on the ice, just weeks after the accident. That immediately caught his attention as he reflected on his own rehab and recovery. 

"After reading everything it's almost like him and I are a lot alike," Cozzolino said. "He has a very similar attitude I did."

In the interview, Straschnitzki talked about what his coach, Darcy Haugan, who died in the crash, would tell him. 

"Just be tough, keep pushing through," is what Straschnitzki imagined Haugan would say. "You were given a second chance, so take advantage of it."

Ryan Straschnitzki, a survivor of the Humboldt Broncos crash, still sees a future in hockey — whether it's playing for the national sledge hockey team, as a coach or a scout. In this exclusive interview with CBC News, Straschnitzki recounts the day of the crash, his struggle since then, and how he draws the courage to keep battling every day. 6:03

It's what Cozzolino is saying to Straschnitzki right now. 

"It's possible. Put your head down and get to work. Anything is possible," Cozzolino said. "I have a ton of hope for Ryan. I'm excited for him and to see what he's able to accomplish."

Straschnitzki has said he wants to get back into hockey again.

"I just want to get back on the ice, whether it's sledge hockey or coaching or scouting…. I just love being on the ice, so any way I can do that is awesome," he said.

It's something Cozzolino knows all too well, and pointed to something that can make a difference in recovery. 

Just hours after suffering his injury, Cozzolino was sitting in the hospital bed and he asked his father if he'd be able to play in the team's next playoff game. It was that desire to get back on the ice that propelled Cozzolino to never give up.

So when he heard Straschnitzki also talking about finding a way back to hockey, Cozzolino felt even more connected to him. 

Dom Cozzolino poses in the Olympic Stadium during ceremonies at the recent Pyeongchang Olympics. (Dom Cozzolino/Photo)

"Getting back on the ice was crucial for me," he said. "I told my dad I wasn't going to just do sledge hockey for fun after I started playing it. I wanted to be the best at it. It gave me that drive and determination again."

It wasn't always easy. Surgeons told Cozzolino he shouldn't play contact sports ever again. There were countless hours of physiotherapy. There were the dark days when Cozzolino wanted to give up. That's when the support of people meant the most to him. 

"I always think about the people who helped and supported me throughout those tough days. I don't think it's fair to say I did this on my own," Cozzolino said. "And that's why I want to give back and help people who are where I was."

In March, nine years after being told he'd never walk again and being told not to play contact sports, Cozzolino suited up for Canada's para hockey team and captured silver at the Paralympic Games in PyeongChang. 

Now he wants to do everything he can to help Straschnitzki become his teammate at the next Games. 

"I'd love to get to know him and just talk to him about what he's going through and share with him what I went through," Cozzolino said. "I want to help him and let him know anything is possible."
 

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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