“Now that they’re not with us, I keep them close with me no matter what I do. I think that has been a big motivating factor in my recovery.”
Character is formed in heat and pressure.
That can be attested to by Airdrie’s Michelle Straschnitzki. On Sept. 15 she and her husband Tom share their story while sitting at a table in the lobby of the Wingate by Wyndham hotel, their home-away-from-home until February 2019. It was five months after tragedy struck the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team when the team’s bus was involved in a crash with a semi truck, which killed 16 people, and injured 13 others including her son Ryan.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s been years, and sometimes it feels like it was yesterday,” says Michelle. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs. Some really significant downs, but the ups have been remarkable.”
Ryan is paralyzed from the chest down, but he has been a beacon of hope in a hard time that unified the nation and perhaps the world.
“We were such a close team,” says Ryan of the Broncos. “We’d do anything for each other. You know, they’re friendships that last forever. Obviously, now that they’re not with us, I keep them close with me no matter what I do. I think that has been a big motivating factor in my recovery.
“With all this media coverage and recognition we’re getting, [my aim is] to advocate for the Humboldt Broncos and the guys who we don’t have here anymore. So, just leave a positive impact on the world in some way.”
Michelle admires her son’s positivity in the face of the worst, as well as his ability to grab another goal.
She told him: “Wherever this path may lead you, we’re going to be right there with you.”
“We’re not ever going to give up on his end goal, which is our goal for him as well, to walk again,” says Michelle. “It could take forever, and it could take less time than we think.”
First, the 19-year-old has his eyes set on physiotherapy, sledge hockey, and someday to win gold for Canada in the Paralympic Games.
A day later, on Sept. 16, Ryan takes one more step toward that goal, hitting the ice for his ninth time in a sled, but his first in an organized game. Ryan and Tom face off against each other in the Cowboys ‘N Sleds game in support of STARS Air Ambulance and the StrazStrong Foundation at the WinSport Markin MacPhail Centre in Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alta. After 40 minutes of smiles, speed, falls and picking himself back up, Ryan’s team, Team Canyon, beats Team World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) 5-4. Ryan picks up two goals and an assist, and sends his dad thrift shopping for a pretty dress to wear for losing the game and their bet.
There’s plenty of tongue-and-cheek with the Straschnitzkis, the Straz family. They’re simultaneously in the valley of the shadow of death, and buoyed above the tide by a thousand friends and strangers.
In a press conference after the game, Ryan reiterates how he’s thankful for the support of the couple hundred people who came to watch.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” he says with a genuine smile, recalling lacing up the skates when he was five. “I was back out there again and just enjoying the moment.”
Then he shares the message that is his life’s calling in an effort to honour his teammates, coaches and friends who died.
“Just because someone has a disability, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. Everyone has a chance to play or do something with their lives,” says Ryan.
From his parents’ upbringing, to his late Broncos coach Darcy Haugan, he was taught hockey was more than a game. As will be sledge hockey.
“I’ve got a long road ahead of me, full of ups and downs, but it’s about improvement and getting better personally. As long as I’m having fun, I think that’s part of the healing process.”
Ryan’s teammate for the day, Team Canada national player Chris Cederstrand, shares with the press how he’s impressed by Ryan’s results. Cederstrand has been influential in getting ice time for the fledgling sledge player. He won’t forget the smile that Ryan had on his face his first time in a sled.
“It will be imprinted in my mind forever,” says Cederstrand.
Tom takes the stand in front of the press, cracks a joke that Cederstrand paid off Team WPCA’s Kevin Rempel (a Paralympic medalist) to let his team lose, and talks about his son as he would had he been given the limelight a year ago. First he says how proud he is, then he jabs that “now he can hit the net I guess, because when he was standing up he would always miss the net, so there’s another positive.”
The day is a success, a definite high note.
The long road
Months earlier, it was April 18, only a dozen days after the crash near Tisdale, Sask.
An apologetic reporter reaches Ryan on his cell phone in hospital in Saskatoon. Ryan’s easy going.
“All good. No problem,” he says. “People have been awesome. The amount of support I’ve gotten has been pretty crazy.”
He lists visitors like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Hockey Night in Canada anchor Ron MacLean, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres.
A day later, he’s transferred by air to the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary. Closer to home, he starts rehab.
May 1 rolls around; another phone call is made. Ryan shares his routine as he recovers from the trauma. Family, friends and visits from the Calgary Flames brighten his demeanor.
With the help of therapists, he works his shoulders and arms, on what he relies for balance completely these days. He likes the staff and the introductions to new equipment of which he’s never been aware before.
He hunkers down for what he thinks will be several months.
“But I’ve got an Xbox and a little TV set up, so I think I should be OK,” says Ryan, always seeing the silver lining.
Another conversation on May 30, and he’s soon to head to Philadelphia to the Shriners Hospitals for Children in early June.
“I figured to go to a place with new technologies Canada doesn’t have access to is an opportunity you can’t turn down,” says Ryan, who is historically willing to do whatever it takes.
He opens up more about his character on Aug. 9 in the Wingate hotel room where he and his family have been generously gifted lodging until their home is renovated. He had just been on the ice in a sled on July 20 for the first time since the crash.
“My dad always taught me when one door closes, lots more open,” says Ryan. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to use my legs, or play hockey again, so any way I could be a part of the game in some way, shape or form; I thought sledge hockey would be the best option.”
It wasn’t the first time a door had shut. In 2015, Ryan was cut by the Strathmore Bisons, then had a tryout with the Leduc Oil Kings which lasted two weeks before he made that team. The Oil Kings went on to the Telus Cup nationals the following season, which led to Ryan being scouted by Humboldt’s coach Haugan, to whom “all that mattered was being a good person to people and things will work out in your favour.”
The saying “There’s strong, and then there’s Straz strong,” was born well before the crash and the following StrazStrong Foundation and symbolic black hats with Ryan’s number 10 and StrazStrong embroidered in the Broncos’ green and gold.
It began when White Collar Boxing Company’s Cody Thompson took on training Ryan, known as Straz.
Thompson was just starting to take on a select few hockey players again. Ryan’s coach in Leduc, Taylor Harnett, was buddies with Thompson, and suggested Ryan for his program.
Thompson wasn’t sure about taking on the 17-year-old, and said “I’ll see if I can break him, and if he keeps coming back, then I’ll work with him.”
Harnett doubted Thompson would, and he didn’t.
“We did everything that we could to try and make him quit, and try and have him stop, and he took everything that we threw at him and just got better,” recalls Thompson. “We started saying, ‘There’s strong and then there’s Straz strong’ because the things he could do were just off the charts. None of us could compete with him.”
Thompson is proud of Ryan, an athlete he calls a “coach’s gift.”
“I think anybody that’s in Ryan’s life struggles with where we’re at and wishes we weren’t here,” says Thompson. “At the same time, I think we understand that Ryan has a really special opportunity to do something great, and he always had that opportunity to do something great; he’s just going to do it in a sled now.”
Ryan’s compelling capability is not missed by Thompson.
“Seeing his work ethic, and his drive to succeed at [sledge hockey], and just change directions is quite inspiring for all of us,” he says, noting “If he’s doing what he’s doing, is what’s in front of me that hard? Not really.”
The interview is winding down. Minutes earlier Thompson and Ryan pose side-by-side on the ice, Thompson kneeling by his student. Both smiling.
“There’s a lot worse things we could be doing on a Friday than skating around on the ice,” says Thompson. “Is this where the rest of us saw September in December last year? No, but things could be a lot worse. And unfortunately for some of the other families and some of the other players, they don’t have the opportunity that we have with Ryan. You’ve just got to look at that and be happy that you still have the opportunity that you have in front of you and embrace every day.”
Ryan is “speechless” when it comes to owning the StrazStrong title.
“It kind of resembles the character me and my family and friends have and the people around me,” he says. “The support is amazing. It all helps for sure. Just keeping that mentality and hopefully things work out.”
Ryan’s inner circle includes his parents, his twin brother and sister Jett and Jaden (16), younger brother Connor (6), and former girlfriend, Erika Burns.
Michelle has been blown away by her son.
“He’s just shown a remarkable strength that even we were not expecting, and it gives us strength,” she says. “But he also knows that he doesn’t have to be that guy…. He doesn’t have to be always strong for us.”
The hockey season began again in early September. The Broncos’ home opener was difficult to watch on TV.
Michelle says Ryan feels “They all should have been there.”
“As hard as it is on us as parents, I can’t even imagine what turmoil of emotions that are going through him, but he’s holding up rather well,” she says.
The trials have brought the family closer.
“We’ve seen the best and the worst in each other, and we’re not going anywhere,” says Michelle.
Family friends and neighbours, headed by TJ Stewart, are helping renovate the Straschnitzkis’ home, helping Ryan regain independence.
In late August, Stewart leads a walk-through, pointing out what has been done and what is to come. Barely any space in the two-storey Windcreek Terrace home will be untouched. An elevator will go in the garage to allow Ryan easy access between the basement and main floors.
“We want to make it as family friendly and wheelchair friendly as possible,” says Stewart.
That includes a new kitchen, lower island, wider pantry, sliding entry doors replacing narrow man doors, removing and replacing hardwood flooring, expanding the bathroom, and modifying almost every interior wall on the main floor.
The previously finished basement has been gutted to make a space Ryan can call his own as a young adult with a wheelchair.
Upgrades include sliding doors in place of the man door, and a bedroom with a floating wall, so Ryan can have a robotic vacuum.
“It can vacuum for him while he’s sleeping,” says Stewart. “We’re going to automate everything as much as we can.”
It’s not zoned for a basement suite, so a dishwasher, fridge and microwave will do the trick, since an oven isn’t an option.
The Stewarts and Straschnitzkis are tight. Ryan and TJ’s son, Ty, played as a defensive pair in minor midget.
Stewart was at their home the night of April 6, and heard the early conversations as the family came to the knowledge of Ryan’s paralysis.
Stewart jumped to action, reaching out to an accomplished builder who wants to remain nameless.
They brainstormed a basement floor plan with Ryan.
“It’s one big collaboration,” says Stewart, noting the neighbourhood is like a big family, which he feels a part of even living in Irricana.
He works nights for Pepsi and hustles up thousands of dollars in donations of labour and materials during the day, including a gifted elevator with install.
Stewart says the goal is to have work complete and the family moved in by February 2019, adding he’s hopeful to get them home for a few days at Christmas, if possible.
The volunteers are still looking for a furniture company to back the build, which will cost close to $300,000 including donations.
To donate cash, labour or furniture, email Stewart at email@example.com.
Help and hope
While Tom and Michelle are off work to help Ryan recover his independence, they are thankful for the help they’ve received.
“We can’t really work because Ryan needs a caregiver,” says Tom, noting Ryan is about 85 per cent able to take care of himself, but will need someone on call until he’s 95 per cent.
The family is assisted by some of the funds from the StrazStrong Foundation set up by Thompson, as well as Brittany and Brandon Skinner. They’re thankful for the vigil that was set up by Mackenzie Murphy.
Michelle and Tom thank the many people who brought them meals for months, as well as other help from people they knew from hockey, and “perfect strangers.”
“There are remarkable acts of good and kindness and love, and it does give you hope,” says Michelle. “You never know how much you’re going to need until you need it.”
They’re also grateful for help from media, the Calgary Flames and the Philadelphia Flyers; the provision of accommodations by the Wingate by Wyndham hotel; Jason and Susan Bissonnette for selling StrazStrong hats in their family’s support; Chris Cederstrand for introducing Ryan to the sled; the staff at hospitals in Saskatoon, Philadelphia and Foothills; as well as Synaptic Spinal Cord Injury and Neuro Rehabilitation Centre, where Ryan currently rehabilitates several times a week.
As the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported on April 20, the 16 people who died after a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team collided with a semi-trailer unit on April 6 near Tisdale, Sask. include 10 players, the bus driver, two coaches, the athletic therapist, a volunteer statistician and a broadcaster.
The names of those killed are play-by-play announcer Tyler Bieber, defenceman Logan Boulet, athletic therapist Dayna Brons, assistant coach Mark Cross, driver Glen Doerksen, head coach Darcy Haugan, defenceman Adam Herold, volunteer statistician Brody Hinz, right-winger Logan Hunter, centre Jaxon Joseph, left-winger Jacob Leicht, forward Conner Lukan, captain and centre Logan Schatz, right winger Evan Thomas, goaltender Parker Tobin and defenceman Stephen Wack.
Others injured include players Graysen Cameron, Brayden Camrud, Kaleb Dahlgren, Bryce Fiske, Morgan Gobeil, Matthieu Gomercic, Xavier LaBelle, Layne Matechuk, Nick Shumlanski, Tyler Smith, Derek Patter and Jacob Wasserman.
In memoriams can be found at hbmfund.com