By Glen Cuthbert
When Riley Dunda received a tweet from his favorite hockey player, naturally he was excited. He just wished it were under better circumstances.
The tweet was a message of support from Mike Richards of the Los Angeles Kings, wishing him a speedy recovery and letting him know that Richards and the rest of the Kings were thinking of him. Riley, an 19-year-old Jr. A forward with the Hamilton Red Wings, is recovering from a stroke he suffered in early May, one that set in motion a chain of events that left his family marvelling at the amount of support from the hockey community.
As soon as news broke of Riley’s stroke, tweets, texts, emails and messages started to pour in from across North America and even Europe. When his family opened his phone for the first time three days after his stroke, they found that Riley had more than 600 text messages and 500 Twitter notifications. “We didn’t think it would be like this,” said his dad, Richard. “It brought tears to our eyes.”
Richard started the hashtag #FightRileyFight, based on the last thing he said to Riley before his son went into the emergency surgery that saved his life. He told Riley that no matter what happened, he had to keep fighting. That hashtag has since been used by NHLers such as Richards, Cam Talbot, Trevor Lewis, Brian McGrattan and Matt Carey, as well as countless junior players and fans. “It’s important for former and current NHL players to reach out to a personal situation like this,” said Carey, who appeared in two games with the Blackhawks last season. “It shows that other players are behind him every step of the way, even if we don’t know him on a personal level.”
Riley collapsed on the morning of May 3 while watching TV at his family’s home in Grimsby, Ont. His mom, a former nurse, recognized his symptoms as either a stroke or seizure and immediately notified paramedics. It turns out Riley had a tear in the lining of the carotid artery in his neck, which allowed a blood clot to make its way to his brain. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. The stroke left him paralyzed on his right side and affected motor skills such as speech, walking and eating.
The support and motivation for Riley has spurred him to make amazing progress in his rehabilitation. Using the same grit and tenacity he used on the ice, he’s surpassed the doctors’ expectations. Riley’s relearned how to use his right hand and foot and has even resumed walking. It’s a long way from being the player he once was, but it gives Riley and his family a measure of hope for a full recovery. Although it seems impossible now, Riley is holding on to the dream of getting back on the ice next season. “I’m going to have to push myself really hard,” he said, “but I want to do it, so I’ve got to do it.”
Other tributes and well wishes have come in from various sources: London Knights center Mitch Marner successfully campaigned the Canadian Hockey League to allow him to wear a tribute sticker to Riley on the back of his helmet during the Memorial Cup. TSN mentioned Riley a during Game 2 of the Western Conference final between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Riley isn’t just trying to get back on the ice, he’s also using this opportunity to give back and make a difference in the treatment and care of other stroke patients. The Dunda family hopes to use this situation to raise $150,000 in support of enhanced stroke intervention research, training, education and patient care.
For Riley’s 19th birthday, which was June 11, he decided the best gifts he could receive wouldn’t be for him but donations to help others. Once again, the hockey community supported him in a huge way, raising more than $11,000. Two weeks later, Riley was on hand to drop the puck for a benefit game featuring nearly 40 midget, Ontario League and American League players. Donations from that game exceeded $6,000.
Riley’s hard work earned him a release from the hospital June 27, less than two months after his stroke. With freedom comes a whole new set of distractions, but with so many people cheering him on, Riley is keeping focused on the ultimate goal: getting better.
The New York Islanders’ Cory Conacher is confident Riley has what it takes. “He’s going to prove a lot of people wrong in his recovery,” Conacher said. “That’s what we’re all hoping for.”