Last April, while heading to a playoff game, a bus carrying a junior hockey team from Saskatchewan was hit by a semitrailer as it ran a stop sign. Sixteen members of the Humboldt Broncos team and staff and their bus driver were killed in the accident, making it the worst tragedy in the history of Canadian sports.
Ryan Straschnitzki was one of 13 survivors. After a lifetime spent training and playing on the ice, Ryan found himself paralyzed from the chest down.
“I thought I would give up on hockey,” he said. “I thought it was the end.”
But his love of the sport was too strong to give up on. Ryan decided to try his sticks at sled hockey (also known as sledge hockey), a variation of hockey in which players are seated on sleds. Inspired by the Canadian sled hockey’s team loss to the Americans in the 2018 Winter Paralympics, Ryan returned to the rink just three months after the accident.
“I knew I wanted to be right back on the ice,” he said. “I wanted to win the gold medal back.”
Even though the rules of sled hockey are very similar to standard ice hockey, the physical challenges Ryan faces are much different.
“The biggest difference in a sled is that you’re using both hands and build up muscles that you’re not used to,” he said. “For me, having no core, having such a high injury, it’s tough to balance and get those edges.”
But this could change for Ryan. Just last month, Ryan underwent an experimental surgery in Thailand that enables him to better control his core, provides stronger sitting balance and offers limited leg movement. After weeks of intense physical therapy, he’s taken some tentative steps and is already back in his sled and out on the ice.
“There’s always going to be bad days,” said Ryan, who’s also looked into playing wheelchair basketball, tennis and water skiing. “But it’s about pushing through.”
While Ryan’s already made the para-ice hockey team for the province of Alberta and is eying a place on the 2020 Canadian Paralympic team, his sights are ultimately set on much higher goals.
“That’s why I do this. To get my message out there, to get to people out there who might be holding themselves back.”