VOORHEES, N.J. – One of the fiercest competitors the game of hockey has ever known couldn’t summon the will to speak for a full 10 seconds.
Finally, a choked-up Ron Hextall uttered the word “sorry.’’
Why were Hextall’s eyes beginning to tear up?
Because he had just listened to Humboldt Bronco junior hockey bus crash survivor Ryan Straschnitzki, who is now wheelchair-bound, speak about how his life has been turned “upside down.’’
Straschnitzki, a native of Calgary suburb Aidrie, was on the ill-fated bus back in April which saw 16 players killed and another 13 injured. He’s currently finishing up his post-spinal surgery rehab in Philadelphia and stopped by to visit Flyers’ Development Camp on Friday.
Hextall, the Flyers’ general manager, was so taken by the 19-year-old’s courage and lack of bitterness, he was practically speechless when he began to address the media.
“The entire process has been really good for Ryan to come to Philly,’’ Hextall said during Flyers’ Development Camp at the Skate Zone. “He’s an incredible young man.
“To be around him and talk to him. . .to see the attitude of a young man whose life has been essentially turned upside down, it’s inspiring.’’
Ryan has been in Philadelphia for four weeks with his father, Tom, by his side.
“The hockey community has been phenomenal in terms of support,’’ Hextall pointed out. “I remember when the accident happened, for myself and everyone else involved in hockey, it hit home.
“Most of us ride buses and still ride buses, for something like that to happen, it really hit close to home for everybody. You see the good in people, the support that not only Ryan got but the other kids as well – the NHL, the media, people donating money.
“Sometimes we see the bad in the human spirit. To see something like this, it’s really been incredible. Ryan is an inspiring young young man, he’s special.’’
There was no tone of “why me?’’ as Straschnitzki addressed a large media contingent.
He said having a hockey mentality and being emotionally strong is getting him through this tough time.
“I’ve had a lot of mentors, coaches and people who have made me mentally strong,’’ Straschnitzki said. “I think it (strength) shows when your team is losing, you show your true colors. I think it’s just keeping a positive attitude. It goes a long way.’’
Some 30 prospects are attending the Flyers’ camp and Straschnitzki had a chance to meet nearly all of them.
“It’s amazing,’’ he said. “I can’t thank them (the Flyers) enough. They’ve made my stay in Philly a wonder.’’
So far, his rehab is ahead of schedule.
“I’ve made quite a bit of progress. I was supposed to be in Philly for six to eight weeks. The rehab pushed me to my limits and now I’m going home next weekend.’’
The Calgary Flames have said they might offer him a job in hockey.
“That would be amazing,’’ he said. “Hockey has been my life. I think if there’s a job opportunity down the road, I would take it. But right now I’m just focused on healing first, getting better.’’
As for his recovery, it won’t be a short-term thing.
“It’s going to be a long process,’’ he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Healing takes time and time heals all wounds. I know it’s going to take time so I just need to be patient.
Some in his shoes might be turned off by the notion of returning to the sport they once played and loved. Not him. He’s already considering playing sled hockey.
“It would be amazing,’’ he said. “Just the smell of the ice coming in today brought back so many memories of being a little kid and the tournaments you’ve been in. Just any way I can be involved in the game. It’s my life.’’