There’s a saying about reaching a destination: how we can’t change the direction of the wind but we can adjust our sails. Perhaps no athlete knows this better than a hockey player.
Like many who spend a good chunk of their youth playing competitive hockey, Ryan Straschnitzki faced getting cut from various teams during his hockey career. He learned to take the hit and move on.
“All throughout my life, I played hockey, which meant I got cut from various hockey teams. It was never the outcome I wanted, but I learned I had to find alternative paths because, sometimes, the way you want to go isn’t gonna be a straight-line trajectory toward that goal,” said Ryan. “One of the biggest things I saw reoccurring in my life was the quote, when one door closes, another opens.”
This quote was hardly front of mind when Ryan was in the hospital, recovering from the horrific crash on a lonely stretch of Saskatchewan highway involving his Humboldt Broncos team bus and a semi-truck. Many Canadians were shaken by the news on April 6, 2018, placing hockey sticks out on the front porches of their homes to collectively signal their grief at the loss of the 16 lives lost and the 13 seriously injured.
Ryan was paralyzed from the waist down. The only time he moved was when a crane lifted him from the hospital bed to therapy. Every waking moment was an exercise in mental resilience.
Finding Purpose in Access
During his recovery, Rick Hansen connected with Ryan. Their stories are similar; both young men who lost the use of their legs in a vehicle accident. Rick told Ryan that his life wasn’t over, far from it. Rick’s tale is well-known, going from being a 15-year-old kid who had to figure out how to get around in a wheelchair in his inaccessible hometown to wheeling around the world at the age of 27 to raise awareness about the potential of people with disabilities.
“Rick told me that there’s more to a person than his or her legs, and that resonated with me,” recalled Ryan. “When we were talking, I realized how many parallels there are within our stories as far as who we are as people and where we want to go. Rick did some incredible things and he’s still doing some incredible things. I want to follow in his footsteps and continue that journey to strive to make my life better, but also the lives around me.”
When Ryan got back to regular activities, he encountered physical barriers in the built environment. When he meets up with his friends, they often have to carry him in his wheelchair up the stairs of a venue. Or, when he goes out to a restaurant, he often has to wheel around to the back door to get inside.
Accessibility became his passion. He took Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) Training, learning about the spectrum of disability and how it affects so many. He was also introduced to the social perspective of disability; that people should not be expected to adapt to their environments. Rather, if communities work towards meaningful accessibility, then no one has to adjust and the 1 in 4 Canadians with a disability can go about their lives with ease and dignity.
“Many people don’t view spaces with acTraicessibility in mind. Until they need to,” said Ryan. “But we need to think smarter design because it helps everyone, not just people with disabilities. The world’s aging population, Canada included, is heading in a trajectory where we will need to make everything accessible.”
Big Dreams in Athletics
In addition to the Straz Strong Foundation where Ryan and his team aim to provide those with disabilities improvement in quality of life through adaptive sports and raising awareness through public speaking and funding for rehabilitation needs, Ryan is back to athletics – with goals to reach the competitive level.
His dream is to represent Canada. Para hockey seemed the natural path to the international stage, given that Ryan strapped on his first pair of skates when he was four. Despite training with Alberta’s para hockey team and the Paralympic development team, discouraging feedback from Hockey Canada highlighted his balance challenges due to his injury, putting him at a disadvantage against athletes who are amputees.
Ryan did some careful evaluation and, once again, looked to open doors. He is exploring a variety of para sports such as rugby, basketball, and golf (Ryan recently hosted a charity golf tournament to ensure adaptive sports are available to anyone who wants to participate). Wheelchair basketball captured his heart, and he aspires to join the Canadian team for the 2028 Paralympics.
Navigating the inevitable ups and downs, Ryan emphasizes mindset and work ethic for positive outcomes: “It’s tumultuous and hard, but instilling the right mindset makes things happen.”
And no matter which way the wind pushes, success lies in the ability to constantly move forward.
“I’m not sure if this is a good trait to have, recognizing what you’ve done but realizing there’s more that could be done,” said Ryan. “It’s like an itch that needs to constantly be scratched. I’m sure Rick can attest to that feeling of always needing to move forward.”