Humboldt survivor has breakthrough as support continues to pour in

Humboldt Broncos player Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed following the bus crash that killed 16 people, speaks to the media as his father Tom, centre, and as his mother Michelle, look on in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

In the midst of a charity hot stove event for his son’s Humboldt Broncos on Wednesday night, Tom Straschnitzki left the room to answer his phone.

It was Ryan calling from his bed in the Foothills Hospital’s spine unit with big news.

He moved his toes.

Hours earlier Ryan had been surrounded by a throng of journalists at his first press conference as the unofficial face of the Broncos, reiterating his goal of proving doctors who say he’ll never walk again wrong.

Later in the evening, during a quiet visit with a friend, the 19-year-old defenceman with no feeling below his chest willed toes on both his feet to move ever so slightly.

Well aware his father would accuse him of a hoax, Ryan immediately sent over a video of the small but not insignificant triumph.

So buoyed by the news, Tom shared it with the emcee whose announcement elicited a loud, emotional roar and ovation from those gathered as they collectively turned their gaze to Ryan’s mother, Michelle.

Unsure how to digest the revelation, she bowed her head with a smile, and wept.

"I don’t want to get too ahead of myself and put thoughts in my head," said Ryan on Thursday morning in a room cluttered with gifts from an endless stream of visitors.

"I’ll take it as a positive for now."

As Tom adds, as only a hockey dad would, "it’s just another shift."

Lots more shifts ahead in a game of life horrifically altered 20 days ago when 16 of the 29 people on his team’s bus died after it crashed into a crossing semi-trailer on a Saskatchewan highway on their way to a playoff game.

On Tuesday, the Nipawin Hawks team the Broncos were en route to play against won an emotional seven-game series over Estevan to clinch the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League championship.

Meanwhile, the Broncos survivors continue a battle to overcome the emotional and physical scars from that sunny Friday afternoon when everything changed.

On Wednesday, teammate Graysen Cameron was discharged from Foothills Hospital, returning to his home in Olds, Alta., an hour north of Calgary.

"His spine was fused – he won’t be able to do contact sports, but he can skate," said Ryan, an Airdre, Alta., native who takes great solace and inspiration from every one of his teammates’ progress.

"We’re all staying in touch. We’re doing this together."

The nation feels similarly.

Canadians aren’t finished wrapping their arms around Humboldt and want to continue supporting the survivors by relishing every bit of good news possible.

"We feel that," said Tom of the groundswell of support that’s been offered up from around the world

"Every single day we feel that. For our support group in Calgary and Airdrie, I don’t think it will ever end. We hear every day, ‘What do you need?’"

While their son was in intensive care in Saskatoon the first two weeks, strangers brought home-cooked meals into the waiting room and offered up endless hugs and love.

Cab drivers, pubs and restaurants refused to take their money as another generous show of support.

One of the most heart-warming moments came when an older couple approached Tom, Michelle and their three other children in the hospital cafeteria with a gift card for $53 and a note that said, "This is all we could scrape together, but hope it can buy you a meal."

Essentially, $53 at a time Canadians pieced together $15 million in well-publicized GoFundMe contributions.

Best Buy officials walked into Ryan’s room this week with a free Xbox gaming system and when they realized they couldn’t hook it up to the room’s TV, they brought him one to keep.

WestJet has flown Ryan’s family to and from Saskatoon for free and Air Canada gave them 90 per cent off.

Neighbours are shuttling their other three kids around while Tom and Michelle are bedside with Ryan, returning home every night to meals provided by their network of friends.

"I’ve never eaten better – don’t tell Michelle," joked Tom, who has kept up a tremendously positive attitude he clearly shares with his son.

"Our six-year-old wants to move in with the neighbours now because he says they’re more fun."

Several home builders have offered to pay for the renovations needed to make their Airdrie home wheelchair accessible when Ryan comes home in July or August.

Good thing too, as Michelle was laid off by an energy company in November and Tom laid off by an oil and gas firm one week before the bus crash.

The road ahead will be long, and Ryan knows the spotlight will soon fade and the stream of visitors will subside.

"Without the attention I’ll have a lot more time doing rehab and practicing moving my feet so it might get more challenging for sure," said Ryan.

"It could get tougher."

One of the toughest things he’s had to deal with was not being able to attend any of the funerals of those he lost.

It prompted a tear on national TV he swore he wouldn’t shed for fear it would look like he wasn’t being strong for his teammates.

Connor McDavid, Justin Trudeau, Sheldon Kennedy, Jonathan Toews, Glen Gulutzan, Todd McLellan and Bret Hart are just a few of the high-profile visitors he had early on. On Wednesday, Brian Burke, Brad Treliving, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano dropped by with gifts that have made his room look like that of most teens.

"It’s a mess," he laughed.

"There’s no more room anywhere with all the jerseys and stuff. Amazing."

Sometime between his morning shower and daily physio, he planned on trying to move his toes again.

His mom refuses to get too excited about it, but understands baby steps are what will buoy everyone involved in the process.

"It’s progress," she said.

"That’s all we can ask for."

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.