Though home games for most hockey teams should bring a sense of pride, for the Airdrie boys U18 AA Lightning, their home game this past weekend at the Ron Ebbesen Arena brought a sense of melancholy and sombre reflection. On Saturday, December 3, the team, along with their rivals from Calgary, the NWCAA Bruins, and all those gathered in the stands paid tribute to a former hockey player and teammate of the team, Ryan Couling.
21-year-old Couling, who had played with the team from 2017-2019, recently passed away after battling rare liver cancer.
Before the game, the team would hear Couling's father speak and the team also made a commitment that going forward the captain of the team will always don the number 8 on their jersey - a tribute to Couling's number. The Lightning's head coach, Mark Kulynych, said the gesture, which was approved by Hockey Alberta, will keep Couling's legacy alive on and off the ice. Kulynych, who considers Ryan's father a dear friend, said the evening was emotional for him, not just as a coach, but as a father himself.
"It really hit home for me. So, we just wanted to do what we could to support them [the family]. At the end of the day, hockey is very, very small compared to life and we wanted to make sure we gave him a good tribute," he said.
The Airdrie Lightning would go on to have a phenomenal game, winning the match; with the team's goalie, Hudson Davies posting a shut-out for the team.
"He stood strong and had a shout-out for Ryan. It was a very difficult game to coach and it was emotional," Kulynych said.
That same night, the team along with their counterparts from the female U18 A Lightning team had a food donation drive for the Airdrie Food Bank. This particular event had been planned before the team knew of Couling's passing. While Airdrie's local hockey teams are often engaged in community events such as food drives, Kulynych said this food drive felt different.
"It felt different in the rink that day, for sure. It felt like Ryan was there; and the amount of food we had. The job that the volunteers and the parents and the players did on both teams was unreal, One of the moms on our team, Gina Slaney, she put that together for our group with the girls' team. She's done an unbelievable job."
As the hockey community in Airdrie and the surrounding area processes their grief and tries to adjust to an insurmountable loss from the death of a young athlete, who was by all accounts a leader on and off the ice, Kulynych said that it is in the moments of grief that the community comes together in the utmost incredible of ways. His son's hockey team, who didn't know Ryan have Couling's initials as stickers on their helmets.
"The hockey community has come together as a family like they always do, and that's why I'm still part of the game. I love it just for that reason alone."
According to Couling's obituary, a memorial Service will be held at W.H. Croxford High School on Saturday, December 10, 2022, at 3:00 p.m.
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