Humboldt Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki spreads inspiration to Flyers

Humboldt Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki spreads inspiration to Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. — Ron Hextall wasn’t sure if he should tell this part of the story.

But then he did.

With Ryan Straschnitzki visiting Flyers Skate Zone on Friday, Hextall revealed a side of himself not often seen. Straschnitzki is one of 13 survivors from the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that killed 16 people April 6 in Connaught, Saskatchewan. He was in Voorhees with his father, Tom.

The story began with Hextall finding out Straschnitzki was coming to Philadelphia for his rehab and leaving Tom Straschnitzki a message about the organization’s desire to meet his son.

About one minute after leaving the voicemail, Hextall received a text message from Andrew MacDonald, who heard the Straschnitzkis were coming and said he wanted to meet Ryan.

It all snowballed from there.

“I don’t know if I should tell this story,” Hextall said, “but … the first time we went over to the hospital, Tom told us that A-Mac offered him his house, his car.”

Stories like this remind us of the power sports have. The community that reaches far beyond the gates of your home, and it’s a reminder of how small the hockey world really is.

Straschnitzki is not a Flyers prospect nor even a Flyers fan. The Flames fandom runs deep in his veins as he grew up in Airdrie, Alberta, about a 30-minute drive from Calgary. He was a defenseman for the Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. He will never play hockey again, at least not in the way he’s accustomed to — sledge hockey potentially could be an option. He is paralyzed from the chest down.

In fact, according to the Toronto Sun, the Flames are discussing hiring Straschnitzki. On Friday, Straschnitzki said he’s focused on recovery but working in hockey down the line is an option.

“Hockey is my life,” he said. “I’ve grown up talking about it, living it and playing. It’s helped me through a lot of things. Say you had a bad test in school and you’re frustrated, so you go shoot pucks for an hour, just kind of relieve that stress. I can’t say much more about it.”

For the past month, Straschnitzki has been in Philadelphia rehabbing at Shriners Hospitals for Children. He was supposed to be in Philly for six to eight weeks but has made enough progress that he’s now scheduled to head home next weekend. He hasn’t been back in seven months dating back before the accident.

Straschnitzki’s rehab consists of waking up in the morning and setting aside two hours to prepare — shower, etc. — for a full day of physical rehab to build up his core muscles. He breaks for lunch and then has two more sessions. While he’s made progress, there are still restrictions on his back.

(Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers)

The tight-knit hockey community that spans far beyond the professional world is also how Straschnitzki’s journey brought him to Philadelphia. According to Tom Straschnitzki, they discovered Shriners Hospital from a waitress they knew at Overtime Lounge in Airdrie.

“It’s a bar that overlooks the ice,” Tom Straschnitzki said. “The parents would sit, have some pop and watch the kids. Our waitress who we’ve known for five years quit and went to work at the Airdrie Boys & Girls Club. Her boss got in contact and said the Shriners are willing to help.”

Ryan Straschnitzki received a tour of Flyers Skate Zone, had lunch with Hextall and other members of the Flyers’ front office and met some of the team’s prospects. Even Samuel Morin, who’s recovering from a torn ACL, made the trip to Voorhees to meet Straschnitzki. Some Flyers are coming to town this weekend and will meet him, according to Hextall.

Hextall, following seeing Straschnitzki speak, was visibly emotional. Shortly after beginning, Hextall teared up and paused for 23 seconds.

It was raw emotion and a sign of how close to home the Humboldt tragedy hit the hockey world — players, organizations, fans and media. Once Hextall collected himself, he continued.

“He’s an incredible young man,” Hextall said. “You guys just witnessed it, but to be around him to see the attitude of a young man whose life has essentially been turned upside down.

“I remember when the accident happened for myself and everybody else involved in hockey, including you guys, it … it hit home. Most of us have ridden buses, and still ride buses and for something like that to happen, it hit really close to home for everybody.

“You really see the good in people. The support that not only Ryan and Tom and their family’s got but all the other kids as well, from the National Hockey League and the media and just random people donating money, sometimes we see the bad in the human spirit, [but] to see something like this, it’s really been incredible. Ryan, he’s an inspiring young man. He’s special.

“You know what, you have a bad day, and you think things are going bad for you and then you look at a kid like Ryan with a positive attitude. You just give your head a shake and say, ‘Life’s not so bad. You better turn your attitude here a little bit.’

“It’s been inspiring for myself. I don’t want to speak for everybody else, but I don’t know how you can’t be inspired to be around the young man.”

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An opponent's perspective on Flyers' resurgent prospect Jay O'Brien

An opponent's perspective on Flyers' resurgent prospect Jay O'Brien

Jay O'Brien had a BCHL mission in 2019-20.

He was out to regain the bravado that he lost as a freshman at Providence, the get-after-you mindset that made him so appealing to the Flyers in the first round of the 2018 draft.

From Chris Clark's standpoint, the mission was completed. The interim head coach and assistant GM of the Wenatchee Wild saw O'Brien's Penticton Vees plenty during the season.

O'Brien, a 5-foot-11, 184-pound forward rebuilding his brand and penchant for scoring, put up 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in seven games against Penticton's rival Wenatchee.

“Other than the offense, the biggest thing you notice about that kid is that he has a ton of swagger and a ton of confidence," Clark said last month in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "He plays on the edge, he likes to get into the verbal battles, he has a ton of swagger. You respect that. Obviously you don’t like to see him do well against you when they have that much swagger but you’ve got to respect a kid that knows what he wants."

(Jack Murray)

The 20-year-old looked like himself again after a difficult transition to the Division I level in 2018-19. With the Friars, O'Brien suffered upper-body injuries and scored five points over 25 games. He had trouble with the strength, pace and lack of space in the college game.

"You never want a year like that," O'Brien said last June, "but in a way, it was helpful for me to light the fire even more."

O'Brien transferred and took his fuel to the BCHL, a junior A league and solid stepping-stone for college-bound players. Yes, it's a different level, but O'Brien went to the BCHL with expectations and met them, a major plus for his development as he heads to Boston University in 2020-21.

With the Vees, O'Brien scored 66 points (25 goals, 41 assists) in 46 games and 10 (five goals, five assists) through five playoff contests before the coronavirus outbreak cut the BCHL season short. O'Brien's nine game-winning goals led the league and his 1.43 points per game ranked third, behind only Kent Johnson (projected 2021 first-round pick) at 1.94 and Philippe Lapointe (Michigan commit) with 1.53.

O'Brien established himself among the BCHL's elite, confidence he'll take to the Terriers.

“Oh without a doubt, him and Kent Johnson, who will be a first-round pick next year," Clark said. "I’m not taking anything away from anybody else. I thought there was a ton of talent in the BCHL this year, but he was definitely one of the top three or four players in the entire league ... not even close.

"He carries a ton of confidence and tremendous amount of swagger — which is good, you need that, you’re an offensive player, you know that every night people know who you are, you’ve got to be able to have that swagger. He definitely did this year. Hopefully for his career moving forward, he continues to develop that and have that — because there’s no doubt when he has the puck on his stick, good things are going to happen nine times out of 10.”

(Jack Murray)

Against Wenatchee, a playoff team itself, O'Brien recorded four multi-point games, including a four-point outburst and an overtime winner. The Wild also held O'Brien to only one assist on three different occasions.

"Extremely talented," Clark said. "He had a large number of points against us unfortunately, scored some big goals against us, just dating back to the last regular-season game, getting the OT winner. He’s just one of those players when he has the puck on his stick, you take notice — you know that he’s got a chance to make something special happen, whether it’s scoring or setting up a guy for an unbelievable look. He’s very gifted offensively, there’s no doubt about that.

"I don’t remember firsthand those games where he only had one assist, but I would be willing to bet he probably had some quality chances. ... I don’t know if we can say we shut him down necessarily, but our guys took a lot of a pride, you want to play against those guys. He comes with a lot of notoriety and well deserved — he’s an unbelievable hockey player."

O'Brien will head to B.U. much more prepared for the Division I competition at 20 years old compared to when he was 18 coming right out of high school.

Clark, who has been with Wenatchee since 2008 and was a graduate assistant for Minnesota State (where he also played), sees a player ready for his second D-I shot.

O'Brien made sure everyone saw that.

“In college hockey, you’re playing against men, you’re playing 24-year-old men," Clark said. "A lot of times in junior hockey, you’re playing against 18-, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds — we have a limit on 20-year-olds in our league, you can have only six or less. A lot of those kids are still developing, they’re still growing into their bodies, they’re still putting on weight. But when you get to college and you’re playing against a 24-year-old senior, that’s a man, that’s a guy who’s probably ready, given the opportunity, to step in and play professional hockey at a high level.

"So I think that’s a big difference, but I just think with his ability to skate, his ability to think the game at a very quick pace, it’s going to translate. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened his first year at college, but everybody has their ups and downs throughout life — if he considers that a down, I don’t know if he does or not.

"But I would say that he’s going to have no problem when next year he gets to college, he’s going to be a heck of a hockey player.”

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Jeremy Roenick's #AtHomeAllStar video has surprise twist ending

Jeremy Roenick's #AtHomeAllStar video has surprise twist ending

The thing about athletes and former athletes is that they're stuck at home just like the rest of us. Only their homes are way bigger and half of them have putting greens in their backyards.

Former Flyer Jeremy Roenick shared a video where he runs a little sports obstacle course of sorts as part of a #AtHomeAllStar challenge. And he's definitely got a pretty sweet backyard.

Roenick shows of the requisite hockey skills but then dabbles in other sports. It's mildly entertaining and absolutely pointless.

The twist ending is perhaps the best part. I can relate to that part, at least.

I feel like there was a missed opportunity to do a cannonball into that pool though.

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