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.”