PHILADELPHIA — Tom Straschnitzki was wrangling his fussy youngest child when his iPhone buzzed. His hands full, Tom put the phone on speaker and heard the terrifying sound of his oldest son calling from a bus and screaming for help.
“Dad, you’ve got to help this time! You’ve got to save the boys! You’ve gotta help!” Ryan Straschnitzki pleaded.
Straschnitzki’s transport bus was on the way back from his rehabilitation session and it had been rear-ended by a truck at a red light. The impact from the December accident hurled the 19-year-old former hockey prospect from his wheelchair to the floor. The fender-bender not far from his home outside Calgary, Alberta, came 10 months after a devastating collision on a Saskatchewan highway that left several members of his Humboldt Broncos teammates and coaches among the 16 dead , a country in mourning and every parent who has ever put a young athlete on a bus shaken.
Tom and his wife, Michelle, were panicked that their son, paralyzed from the chest down, was in yet another bus accident. They were also bewildered by their son imploring his dad to help other hockey players when he was alone on the transport bus.
Tom tried to talk his son down, bring his mind back to the present and promised him there was no one else to save. Straschnitzki hung up and his parents waited for a few frightening minutes until he calmly called back and said he was fine. He would get on another bus and head home.
“Pretty minor, but it still kind of sucks,” Straschnitzki said.
Though he downplayed the episode months later, it was no less traumatic for a family still reeling from the one of the worst tragedies in Canadian sports history. In the year since the April 6 accident, grieving families have tried to stitch their lives back together, most moving on without their sons. The Straschnitzkis have a new life, recast as a family of six stuffed in hotel rooms, relying on donations to stretch their meagre budget and making sure their son can still live his best life, even if it means travelling from Alberta to Philadelphia and perhaps all the way to Thailand to find it.
“This is the life we have now,” Tom Straschnitzki said. “And we’re not going to let anyone cry for us.”
Ryan Straschnitzki wears a big smile as he wheels into a Philadelphia hotel lobby in a Philadelphia Flyers sweatshirt and a backward baseball cap. He was in town for a recent checkup at Shriners Hospitals for Children and had spent the previous night at the Flyers game where he was honoured on the scoreboard and mingled with the players in the locker room.
Straschnitzki, who turns 20 on April 20, is always upbeat in public and has tried to use the power of positivity throughout his daily physiotherapy sessions, sledge hockey practice, interviews and even just the joys of being a young adult. He hangs out with friends, watches Netflix, plays videogames and dabbles with the idea of working for an NHL team or becoming a motivational speaker.
“It’s been nothing but good things,” he said.
Straschnitzki is idealistic about his recovery and, like countless athletes who suffered physical setbacks, refuses to let doctors define his fate. He’s bulked up to 183 pounds, somehow more muscular than his playing weight of 190 and light years from the 140 pounds he hit in the hospital after the crash. His playing career snatched away, Straschnitzki has taken assisted steps on a treadmill with the aid of therapists.
“I’m pretty strong-minded,” he said. “It kind of got to me that, there are ups and downs, but don’t let it get to you and keep pushing forward.”
Straschnitzki was among 10 survivors at the NHL Awards last June in Las Vegas. Standing side by side in Humboldt jerseys they accepted the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for head coach Darcy Haugaan, who died in the crash.
They were just teens from across Canada with eyes on hockey scholarships and the NHL when the bus left for a playoff game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. Straschnitzki was an early-season trade acquisition after Haugan had become impressed by the 5-foot-11 defenceman in a spring tournament. The survivors now are spread out — centre Brayden Camrud returned to play this season for the Broncos — and most sustained permanent physical injuries and other mental health issues. They remain bonded through a group text chat where they talk hockey or just check in and make sure everyone is OK.
“I’m glad at where the boys are right now,” Ryan Straschnitzki said. “They’re healing in their own ways. We’re there for each other. The guys who aren’t with us anymore, they left an impact on us. I think we use that as motivation for everything we do now.”
Straschnitzki has connected to various NHL teams that rallied to support him and the Humboldt survivors. He’s struck a friendship with San Jose Sharks goalie and Airdrie native Aaron Dell, and worked up scouting reports for the Calgary Flames. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the celebrities who met Straschnitzki in a Saskatchewan hospital
The visitors for the Humboldt victims also included former junior hockey players who survived a similar bus crash in 1986.
Sheldon Kennedy, who played in the NHL, talked about the indelible impact that crash would have on them. Tom was struck by this message from Kennedy: “You’re going to have survivor’s guilt, If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. I’m telling you now because it took 10 years for someone to tell us.”
Former “Survivor” contestant Gervase Peterson heard about the Straschnitzkis’ plight and asked his bosses at a Philadelphia ambulance company if they could help when the family was in town. Peterson arranged for round-trip rides for Straschnitzki between their latest hotel stop and Shriners.
“Look, anybody that’s been through what he’s been through, just to have the will to still live is wonderful,” Peterson said. “But to have the will to make a life for yourself after that is a whole other ballgame. He shows that. He wants to have a life still and do something.”
That new life starts with sled hockey — known as sledge hockey outside the U.S. — for players with physical disabilities. Players use two sticks, which have a spike-end for pushing and a blade-end for shooting. Former Team Canada national sledge player Chris Cederstrand coaches Straschnitzki at East Calgary Twin Arena. The recent stop at Shriners cleared him for contact, reigniting dreams of representing his country at the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing. Straschnitzki has found refuge from the dark days on the ice and plays now not to make a team or impress a coach, but for fun.
“It’s just trying not to get in my own head,” he said. “My way to escape from all that is on the ice.”
The next phase comes later this fall when he plans to travel to Thailand for a new type of procedure on his spine. He will have a stimulation implant controlled by a type of remote control placed in his back. According to the family, the implant sends electrical current to the spinal cord that stimulates nerves and limbs, perhaps helping him regain control of his bladder and strengthen other core muscles that could make him a better sledge player.
“It sounds pretty promising,” Straschnitzki said. “If you’re hopeful and keep a good heart, I think good things will happen.”
Tom Straschnitzki puts down the Coors Light at the hotel bar and pulls out his iPhone to show the instant his family’s life was turned upside down. He scrolls for a moment — a small smile forms because a number for Bret Hart, the old WWE star and a childhood idol, is now in his contacts — when he finds it: a screenshot of 4:58 p.m., April 6, when he lost connection with Ryan’s phone through the location sharing app.
Tom had arrived home from his job at an oil company and was about to settle in with Michelle to watch Humboldt play after Ryan was suspended two games in the previous junior league playoff round for boarding. The excitement dimmed when Tom received a text at 5:10 p.m. from a friend who worked as a hockey scout asking if he had heard about a bus accident in Saskatchewan.
Could be anything. The friend texted Tom about 10 minutes later with an urgent message to pick up his phone. Tom answered and the update was relayed: “I think it’s the Broncos’ bus.” Tom and Michelle flipped on the 5:30 news still thinking they’d hear about a fender-bender, not see life-changing carnage.
“We saw it on the news and it was like, oh my God. All we could do was sit and wait,” Tom said.
The news spread quickly through the Calgary suburb. Soon nearly five dozen friends and neighbours had filled the Straschnitzki home, offering moral support and nervously calling hospitals and checking the ticker for updates. Around 7:30 p.m., the father of Bryce Fisk, a Broncos defenceman, called.
“Tom, I found Ryan, he’s alive,” Tom said Fisk told him. “I asked, ‘How’s everyone else?’ He said, ‘I’ve got to go. It’s a mess.’”
Ryan Straschnitzki remembers texting a friend when the bus was struck, and he was shot out a bus window and tossed to the pavement, where he was eventually found, face and arms bloodied.
Neighbours pitched in to pay for a flight for Tom and Michelle to get to Saskatchewan and the couple hurried to the side of their son. Tom steeled his nerves and told Michelle to stay strong, unsure of the grim reality they were about to face with their son hooked up to tubes in the ICU following seven-hour surgery. Straschnitzki didn’t look that bad, just a cut above one of his eyes, but suffered broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a punctured lung and internal bleeding.
The kid who was hooked on hockey since he laced up skates for the first time at age 3 had the resolve to recover. That much glistened from the outset.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I asked what he was sorry about, he goes, ‘I can’t feel below my chest,’” Tom said. “I said, ‘I don’t give an F about that. You’re alive and I’m talking to you.’ Then he just kind of zoned out for a bit and then he looked at me and said, ‘Did Team Canada win sled hockey in the Olympics?’”
“You know what, I’m going to try sled, I’m going to try and make the team so we can maybe bring home the gold,” Ryan told his dad.
Straschnitzki has mostly vivid memories of the accident but largely avoids describing it. His father has no doubt Straschnitzki is dealing with guilt for simply being alive while so many of his buddies are gone. Logan Boulet, one of those killed, had registered as a donor and six people across Canada benefited from his organs. A GoFundMe account raised more than $15 million.
The Broncos rebuilt their roster this season and made the playoffs. Straschnitzki couldn’t watch. He skipped the memorial banner ceremony and has yet to return for a game.
“I’m not sure when I’ll go back,” he said. “I just don’t want to. I don’t think I’m ready. It’s kind of a mix of all sorts of things. I think when I am ready, I’ll go back and visit.”
Tom thinks his son could benefit from counselling, but that “it takes Ryan a lot to trust people.”
“You want to talk to him but he’s 19,” Tom said. “When he does have his down times, you try and talk. But basically, he wants to be left alone so we give him his space.”
Personal space is an unattainable luxury for the Straschnitzkis over three rooms at the Hampton Inn. The family home is undergoing extensive renovations to make it accessible for Straschnitzki and his family, which also includes twin siblings, a younger son and a dog. They are on their second different hotel and have been displaced since last summer. Canadian contractor and TV host Mike Holmes was brought in to oversee the extreme makeover, and charity has come from across the country to ease the financial burdens. Easter Seals Alberta has partnered with Garaventa Lift to provide a residential elevator. Jet HydroVac Calgary donated concrete. Former St. Louis Blues forward Kelly Chase, who played for Humboldt, gifted a $40,000 wheelchair. The Straschnitzkis were set there and opted to pass it along to a veterans group in Canada, intent on trying to help others when they can.
Every bit of assistance helps.
Tom was laid off from New Star Energy shortly after the accident and Michelle Straschnitzki is also out of work even as their lives remain impossibly hectic. There’s always somewhere to be, a function, a trip, rehab, and all the commitments for their other children.
“We’ve got a paralyzed kid here. We need help,” Tom said. “Jobs are hard right now in Alberta.”
The Straschnitzkis thought they’d be home late last summer. Straschnitzki instead passed time with a friend in the Philly hotel while Tom sipped beer and slipped out for the occasional smoke break. He was fine giving his son his personal space for a few hours. They are expected to move into their new house on April 27.
Ryan Straschnitzki is about to find freedom on the open road. He recently passed a driver’s test in a Toyota Camry built for people with disabilities. Ryan used hand controls to navigate the gas and brake and is waiting on his new license.
“His first little run, it was like first time drivers. Floor it, stop it,” Tom said.
The agonizing reminders of the wreck loom large as the anniversary approaches. The owner of the transport truck involved in the deadly bus crash admitted he did not follow provincial and federal safety rules. Sukhmander Singh of Adesh Deol Trucking pleaded guilty and was fined $5,000.
Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the truck driver who caused the crash, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison . He had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving.
Judge Inez Cardinal began her decision by reading aloud each victim’s name.
“Families have been torn apart because of the loss,” Cardinal said at the sentencing. Survivors, Cardinal suggested, “are putting on a brave face in an attempt to be strong.”
Tom Straschnitzki says he does not forgive Sidhu, who is likely to face deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.
“He’s the head of the snake,” Tom said.
On Saturday, the Straschnitzkis will continue their push from helplessness to hopeful, refusing to let their tragedy define them and instead find focus on in the possibilities ahead. Ryan Straschnitzki just wants to go to the Calgary Flames game Saturday night and not think about the anniversary.
“That’s the day our life changed,” Tom Straschnitzki said. “This year is the year we begin again.”
By The Associated Press