Craig Cunningham, who nearly died in November when his heart stopped just before the opening faceoff of an AHL game, got a standing ovation from Coyotes fans on Saturday night as he dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff before Arizona's game at Gila River Arena.
Cunningham, who lost part of his left leg during his recovery from the heart ailment, got a big hug from Coyotes captain Shane Doan after dropping the puck for Doan and the Minnesota Wild's Martin Hanzal, a former teammate of Cunningham's with Arizona.
Cunningham smiled widely as he shook hands with players from both teams before leaving the ice. But his biggest smile of the day might have come earlier, when -- while wearing a special prosthetic for skates -- he skated around the Gila Arena ice and even did a little stickhandling with a puck along the way.
"Obviously, the next time I walked into this arena, I wanted it to be with my gear and playing," Cunningham said in an interview with Fox Sports Arizona after the first period on Saturday. "It's been a pretty crazy last couple of months and an incredible journey to get to this point."
Cunningham, playing for the Coyotes' Tucson minor league club on Nov. 19, survived that night thanks to the quick work of medical personnel, including a group of firefighters who were in attendance to play the national anthem on bagpipes.
Cunningham, 26, played 63 games in the NHL over parts of three seasons with the Coyotes and Boston Bruins. He was captain of the first-year Tucson Roadrunners -- and the team's leading scorer -- the night he suffered what doctors called a cardiac rhythm disturbance.
He was kept alive by efforts that started with 83 minutes of CPR and later involved Cunningham being hooked up for weeks to an artificial heart and an oxygenator. But an infection in his left leg in December forced doctors to amputate part of it.
"I feel unlucky that the [heart] event happened to me," Cunningham told Fox Sports Arizona. "But I also feel very lucky those [firefighters] were on hand, our two trainers and medical staff, and they were all equipped to know what to do if something like that happens.
"Obviously, I wouldn't be alive and this far along in my recovery if not for the incredible medical staff and the family support I have had the past couple of months. It's been very humbling the support I have received all across the hockey world and from everyone in the state of Arizona."
Cunningham said he has been talking with the Coyotes about working in the organization, probably starting out in the scouting department.
He was named last month as the winner of the AHL's Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award, given to the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.