Ron Hextall was doing all he could to fight off the tears, all he could to not break down in front of a room full of reporters and cameras.
The bus crash that left 15 members of the Humboldt Junior Hockey program dead. … The injury that had left a young man's body and dreams shattered in the blink of an eye. … The arduous task over the last two months of salvaging whatever was salvageable from both.
"The first time you see him … '' Hextall, the Flyers' general manager, began again, after his long pause became the room's long pause, conveying almost a moment of collective prayer.
This came moments after one of the crash's survivors, Ryan Straschnitzki, had wheeled himself from the room at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees with a broad smile; after he and his father, Tom, spoke to the same assemblage with no hint of sadness or self-pity. Instead, they professed the endless can-do resolve that has made this boy of 19 perhaps the most recognizable face of the unconscionable April 6 bus crash in Connaught, Saskatchewan that killed both of his coaches, a trainer, a broadcaster, a volunteer statistician, and 10 of his teammates. The bus driver also died. The crash, into a tractor-trailer in a rural intersection, remains under investigation.
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Straschnitzki was left paralyzed from the chest down. After a six-week recovery began in Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre, the Shriners stepped in and offered their facility and services in Philadelphia, among the top in the field, for no charge.
So the Straschnitzkis, father and son, arrived here in late May, beginning a grueling rehab process that just this week progressed to the point of the Broncos defenseman taking his first steps – albeit with the help of a harness-aided Therastride treadmill, developed to retain muscle memory for the paralyzed.
Physiotherapists helped Straschnitzki move his legs back and forth. Still, he told the Toronto Star in typical upbeat manner: "It was pretty surreal just seeing yourself walk again. … I did feel the effects afterwards, I was pretty fatigued … but knowing that I'm able to do that helps my mindset even more. I'm just happy."
Yeah, he said "happy." Straschnitzki has, almost from the point of prognosis, chosen to push forward. He speaks of playing sled hockey in the Paralympics someday. A report out of Toronto on Friday said his hometown Calgary Flames are poised to employ him. The long, arduous three rehab sessions a day often leave him with little energy to do anything but eat and sleep. But there he was Friday, on a rare light day, meeting Flyers prospects, lunching with Hextall, touching a sheet of ice for the first time since that awful day.
And touching everyone with whom he came into contact, as he has from the start. When he learned the Straschnitzkis were headed to Philly for his rehab, Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald offered the use of his house and car. Defenseman Sam Morin, in the building for his own rehab work Friday, rumbled up the steps to the team offices when he found out the injured player was in the building.
Hextall, in front of a media group he often eyes warily, was overcome by emotion as he recalled his first meeting with the player a month ago.
"I mean the Humboldt thing, we all knew it happened,'' Hextall said. "But it became real. Here's this young man sitting in a wheelchair because of this accident. … It was a pretty powerful moment. And even then, he was as positive as heck.''
Straschnitzki said he owes at least that to those who didn't survive the crash. Particularly he owes it to his late coach Darcy Haugan — "a mentor,'' he said.
"Darcy always said if you have a dream, go for it,'' he said. "It could be your last game. You never know when it's going to be. Obviously, it was my last game. So I'm just living on those words. They've helped me get through a lot of things.''
Said his father: "He has a never-give-up attitude. He has his ups and downs like all of us. When he gets down, we try to push him back up. Make sure he goes through the right door.''
The next door, which might come as soon as next weekend, leads back to his home in Airdrie, Alberta, a suburb of Calgary. It's been six months since he last passed through that threshold, and he will notice some changes. A wall is being knocked down to expand his bedroom. A concrete wall leading to the garage has to go, to widen hallways. The furnace and water heater, with all their adjoining ducts, must be pushed a few feet back.
He will be going back to a hotel while all this is done. But again, no complaints.
"It will be nice to see friends and family again,'' he said.
"It sometimes does get to me and I get overwhelmed and I just have to take a beat," his mother, Michelle, told the Star this week. "His attitude itself is keeping me going … I'm just absolutely inspired by my own kid, which is amazing."
Said his father: "I've always been, if there's a negative, I always try to find a positive. I always tried to teach the kids that.