AIRDRIE, Alberta — The bus was stopped at a light. Then it was not, jolting forward, spilling Ryan Straschnitzki from his wheelchair to the cold floor.
It was happening again. A bus. A crash. The overwhelming feeling of helplessness amid chaos and great need.
This was in early December, near his suburban Calgary home, eight months and 500 miles removed from the bus crash that had killed so many teammates and friends, put him in this wheelchair, put him in this medical transport bus that had just been rear-ended at a red light by an inattentive driver, sending him forward to the floor — and back in time.
Ryan wasn’t out of his mind. He was too far into it, back into the buried memories of that terrible afternoon at Armley Corner, where Saskatchewan Highways 35 and 335 intersect, where a semi-trailer truck rammed into a bus carrying him and 28 other members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, leaving 16 dead and him paralyzed from his chest down.
And leaving scores of others — injured players, their families and friends — irreparably changed forever.
“Tom took the call,” Michelle Straschnitzki was saying as she sat in the Wingate Hotel lobby in Airdrie that has served as their living room since Ryan returned from a lengthy and exhausting rehabilitation at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. “We had it on the speakerphone. We heard his panic. And everything was scare and fear and so front and center that he transferred us back to April 6.”
Ryan was back in that bus, back among the blood and the bodies of his friends, of boys he had been joking with just seconds before, of boys he had spent as much or more of his life with over the previous three years than his own family. He was talking about it all as he lay on the floor of that medical transport, for the first time really, his mind reenacting the scene, detail by detail, as his horrified family listened.
“Not a good situation,” said Ryan, 19. “We need to bring awareness to safe driving.”
“He was so afraid for his teammates,” Michelle said. “And he saw it all over again. He wasn’t even afraid for himself. He was in that moment. And it wasn’t jumbled thoughts. He really thought he was back in that moment.”
“For us, as a family, that was very difficult to get through.”
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Like the Shriners, the owners of the Wingate are part of a network that has extended to the Straschnitzkis and the other Humboldt survivors. While their home a few miles away is being rebuilt to suit the needs of a paraplegic – an undertaking that began last summer and is already months behind schedule – the Straschnitzkis have lived here. Ryan takes up a handicap-accessible room on the first floor, his twin siblings, Jett and Jaden, and 6-year-old brother, Connor, are in another room, Mom and Dad next door.
This is where they eat their meals, watch television together, play board games. The hotel lobby is their living room, where the phone call came on the afternoon of Dec. 3.
“The first time we got a glimpse,” Michelle said, “of what that day must have been like for all of those boys.”
When he was again thrown to the floor of a bus, Ryan said, he allowed himself a moment of self pity. “But I mean, everything’s good,” he said. “I’m healthy. And still kicking, so …”
So upward and onward. He was at rehab the next day, and the day after that. The medical transport bus company quit him – insurance concerns, they said – but this was a minor problem for a family that has maneuvered around so many larger ones.
For starters, there is family life out of hotel rooms. Michelle cooks and cleans and does the wash. Tom drives and picks up, at least when he and Ryan aren’t traveling around North America for speaking engagements, to motivate, to raise funds. It has become a full-time job for Tom, a laid-off production accountant with an oil company.
Michelle lost her job as an oil company administrator just before last Christmas.
It seemed like a big deal at the time, she said. Not anymore.
Tom hates the travel. Michelle dreams of it.
“I’d love to go and see all these places,” she said. “But I have to be here for all my little monkeys.”
With all the adjustments, it’s a full-time gig. The teenagers have their own lives, filled with hockey games and school events. Connor still attends the grade school near their home, walks past his house every day on his way to the friend’s house where the Straschnitzkis have arranged a pickup.
“He’ll walk across the street to our house and he will sit on the bench in front of our house,” Michelle said as her voice quavered. "He’ll just sit there. I don’t know what he’s thinking. He doesn’t say anything. He just sits there and contemplates.
"I think he misses it. We all miss it. He wants to go home. And in the simplest terms, we all just … want … to … go … home.
"That really hit Ryan hard."
The problems with the home’s rehab has tested their patience, made them a tad stir-crazy too. Small structural changes have become big structural changes. Timelines have come and gone. An elevator that was expected to be installed by now has yet to arrive. February is the new target date. Christmas will be spent in a hotel.
For the family, the accident has meant standby. Standby while the house is completed. Standby as funds are raised for Ryan to take the next step to recovery. Standby for them to return to at least a semblance of their previous lives.
Standby as medical science tries to catch up to their adjusted dreams, too. There is talk that once Ryan is strong and stable enough, they will look into experimental methods and surgeries available in other countries.
Ryan is a study in contrasts. For him, the accident has created a sense of urgency and immediacy to his life. He wants everything done a minute ago, said Michelle. No wasted minutes, no sitting around.
“A person is defined by how they act all the time,” he said. "I see some people my age who decide to hang out and party all the time. Not do anything with their lives.
"I think a true person would put their mind to something and try to achieve something and be successful. Not everyone has that mentality. And after this tragedy it really struck me that you can’t always rely on hockey. For me it’s trying to find something that I want to achieve and then putting the work in.
"I’m pretty adaptive."
Clearly his family is too. A typical big family with members headed in opposite directions before the crash, they savor family time together now. Recently the family attended the Flyers game in Calgary, which ended with the Flyers blowing a two-goal lead in the last 68 seconds before losing 35 seconds into overtime.
A meet-and-greet had been arranged before the game, which the Flyers players dutifully honored.
“After the game I was pretty pissed off,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said a few days later. "Pretty upset what happened. And then I saw him. First of all, just great to see him again. And his courage. All that he’s been through. It puts our problems a little smaller.
"Anytime I see him it kind of brightens my day. Even that one."
It’s that reaction, Michelle said, that makes the sacrifice mean something. She’s seen her boy become a man over the last trying eight months, “really stepped up in so many ways I couldn’t have imagined,” she said.
“Before this, he was that guy who didn’t want to be the focus of attention. He couldn’t talk to groups of people. … Now he’s like, that’s OK. I’ll meet with people. I’ll talk to little kids. It’s really strange. But it’s great.”
"It’s hard to wrap my head around sometimes," Ryan Straschnitzki said. "It seems unreal. I’ll get those messages here and there that I’ve inspired. Obviously if I do that, it feels good. But at the same time it doesn’t feel real. I’m just a guy who is trying to do something with his life.
“I mean I’m just living my life the way I want to right now. And if that’s helping people out, I’m happy. And I’ll keep continuing to do that and inspire more people.”