PHILADELPHIA (AP) — 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.
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 meager budget and making sure their son can still live his best life.
”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.
Straschnitzki, who turns 20 on April 20, is upbeat in public and has tried to stay positive 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.
Straschnitzki is idealistic about his recovery and, like countless athletes who suffered physical setbacks, refuses to let doctors define his fate. 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.”
The Broncos were just teens from across Canada with eyes on hockey scholarships and the NHL when their bus left for a playoff game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. The survivors now are spread out – center Brayden Camrud returned to play this season for the Broncos – and most sustained permanent physical injuries and other 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.”
His 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. 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.”
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.
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 counseling, but that ”it takes Ryan a lot to trust people.”
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. They are expected to move into a new house on April 27.
”We’ve got a paralyzed kid here. We need help,” Tom said. ”Jobs are hard right now in Alberta.”
The agonizing reminders of the wreck loom large as the anniversary approaches. 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.
On Saturday, the Straschnitzkis will continue their push from helplessness to hopeful and focus on 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.”