Paralyzed Hockey Player Ryan Straschnitzki Takes First Steps After Breakthrough Spinal Surgery

The Canadian hockey player survived the horrific 2018 bus crash that killed 16 people, including some of his teammates.

They were just a few small steps, but for Ryan Straschitzki, they constituted a giant leap for his peace of mind.

The 20-year-old Canadian hockey player, who was left paralyzed from the chest down following a devastating 2018 bus crash that took the lives of 16 people on board, recently returned from Thailand, where he went for state-of-the-art surgery to implant a pacemaker of sorts that sends electrical impulses to his  legs.

For the first time since he boarded that doomed bus 17 months ago, Straschitzki was able to stand on his own two feet and take a series of difficult steps. 

"It started off pretty bad and hard," he told in an interview from his family's home in Alberta. He returned to Canada earlier in the week, after spending five weeks in a Bangkok hospital recuperating and undergoing physical therapy following the four-hour surgery to insert an epidural stimulator in his severely damaged back bone.

"But by the end, it was getting a lot easier," he said of his time there. "There's a few videos of me kicking a ball and taking assisted steps, which was pretty tough. But there's a certain way to do and I think everyone's different. So I just had to find my rhythm and keep going with that."

There is no place in the rhythm of Straschitzki's rehabilitation for depression or self-pity. "I surround myself with good people, so they're always uplifting and I got a good girlfriend, so she's always there to support me and I think everything's good."

He still plays his favorite sport, though his current version is called sled hockey, and it's an adaption for people with physical disabilities, in which players sit on sleds with their legs extended in front of them and use two short sticks with metal tips to navigate the ice.

It's big difference from traditional hockey, which he played for years. He and his Humboldt Broncos teammates were traveling to a game on a cold April morning on a rural highway when their bus was broadsided by an unexperienced semi-truck driver hauling a heavy load of peat moss.

Driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu had only been on the job for a month when he barreled through a flashing stop sign and slammed into the front half of the bus. His load was thrown across a wide swath of snow-covered plains. He was unhurt. On the bus, which flipped on its side, ripping off the roof, the dead and wounded lay inside and scattered in the snow, where they landed after being ejected from the wreckage.

The 16 dead include the team's head coach, bus driver, its play-by-play announcer, the athletic therapist and several team members. Thirteen people, including Straschitzki, were injured. 

Sidhu later pleaded guilty to charges of driving causing death and dangerous driving causing bodily injury. He was sentenced earlier this year to eight years in prison. He expressed deep regret and remorse, saying he was inexperienced and distracted by a tarp that had come loose from the back of his truck.

The survivors and families of the dead were also emotional, and during a highly charged sentencing hearing, they spoke of their devastating losses. Some granted the driver forgiveness. Some condemned him. 

"All you had to do was stop ... Why? Why didn't you stop? You didn't even slow down," said Tom Straschnitzki, Ryan's father. 

His dad has been at his side for every bit of Ryan's recovery, and accompanied him to Thailand. He heard about the surgery available there from a friend, and at first, he was skeptical. "But I saw a couple of testimonials online and everything just seemed to work out and I went there and everything fell into place," he said.

The procedure has not been approved for use in his native Canada, and Thailand was one of the cheaper providers of the new surgery, he said.

His family has also just completed renovations to their home, making it wheelchair friendly and installing an elevator. Donations helped raise the $100,000 surgery price, he said. 

"I'm really grateful for that," he said. He has physical therapy five days a week and is focused on building his core muscles to better help him sit up straight in his chair and to reach things with his arms and hands.

But it a long process, and a game of only half-inches, to rebuild his battered body. 

"This surgery isn't a cure, but it's the next best thing to walking again ... we'll see where science expands," he said. "They're always working on something new and better."

Meanwhile, the young man is contemplating where he fits in this new world he lives in. 

"It's tough to say. Hopefully, I can be an advocate for spinal cord injuries and bringing awareness to it all over the world ... I haven't really found my place yet, but I think I have a lot of time left."