Like millions of Canadian hockey players, Harold Cox grew up dreaming of playing before millions of hockey fans on Hockey Night in Canada.
Like 99.9 per cent of Canadians, he never made it as a player, but Cox – and his remarkable story of literally rising from the dead – is going to be broadcast to millions of Canadians on an upcoming episode of Hockey Night in Canada.
Nine months ago, Cox was playing pickup hockey with his regular group of buddies on Friday morning at the Oliver Arena when he suffered a massive heart attack.
Thanks to the quick action of five of his friends – Marty Whiteman, Jeff Crowley, Bryan Coles, Doug Hume and Steve Arstad – and access to an automated external defibrillator (AED), Cox was jolted back to life after laying motionless and without vital signs for several minutes.
He was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery after undergoing triple bypass surgery in Kelowna several days later.
Last Wednesday morning at the same arena where he came so close to death, Cox made a triumphant return by playing hockey for the first time since the unforgettable incident.
A film crew hired by The Mark, a television production company out of Toronto, was on hand to film Cox’s return to the ice.
The four-person crew spent two full days in Osoyoos and Oliver filming and interviewing Cox and his wife Audrey as well as several of the players who worked together to revive him nine months ago. The plan is to broadcast Cox’s story during an intermission of Hockey Night in Canada.
Ben Addelman, the director of the crew, said it will take several weeks of post-production work before the story on Cox will be broadcast.
After talking it over with his wife and doctor, Cox made the decision to return to playing hockey and allowing a film crew to tell his story.
The biggest reason he accepted the invitation by the film crew to tell his story on Hockey Night in Canada is because he wants to continue sending the message that AEDs save lives.
“The biggest thing I want to get across is AEDs save lives and it’s only because of these machines that my life was saved,” he said. “These are incredible devices that should be available in every hockey rink in this country and anywhere where large amounts of people gather … that’s the most important message I want to share.”
Cox said he thought seriously about hanging up his skates and not playing hockey anymore, but thought about the guys who helped save his life and couldn’t say no.
“I do feel sort of obligated to come back at least for one more year and play with this group,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today and I know all the guys wanted to see me come back and I just couldn’t let them down.”
Getting back on skates for the first time every fall always feels a bit awkward after a few months off and it was no different last week, said Cox.
“You lose your timing a bit, but overall I feel pretty good,” said Cox after taking several shifts. “I feel pretty much like I do when I get out for my first skate every year, but I have lost a little bit of strength and hopefully that will come back.”
Seeing the guys who helped save him and the rest of the players who were there that day and seeing how happy they were to see him was heartwarming, said Cox.
“You play pickup hockey to get some exercise and share some laughs and all of the guys have really been great to me and welcomed me back with open arms,” he said. “We have a great bunch of guys here and it was just great seeing them all again under much better circumstances.”
Addelman said he read about Cox’s story after accepting the assignment and was thrilled to be part of the crew to be there when he returned to the ice.
“The focus of this new segment on Hockey Night will be on different aspects of hockey culture,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better story than a bunch of guys coming together during a real-life crisis and saving a teammate’s life.
“Fortunately, there was a very optimistic ending. It’s an inspiring and great story and one we think Canadians are going to love to hear about.”
Director of photography Liam Maloney agreed.
“Hockey is thought of as a young man’s game and it is at the professional level, but it’s a game that millions of Canadians love and to be able to tell a story of a group of guys who rallied together to save the life of one of their friends is remarkable,” he said. “They were a real band of brothers and that’s what hockey is all about.”
Whiteman said this is not only a story about hockey, it’s a good human interest story about life.
The player said he and his teammates are not heroes.
“We muddled our way through it (the AED operation) . . . I never even saw an AED before. The hardest part was getting it open.”
Crowley, who took the lead in telling his teammates what to do that memorable day, said this story reaches far beyond Oliver and Osoyoos, and has resulted in positive changes on so many different levels.
For example, the Oliver arena installed an AED in the front foyer (the model that was used on Cox was in a locked office).
Crowley noted that Oliver Alliance Church purchased an AED after Harold’s ordeal.
“It has already made a difference in other venues . . . it has created awareness.”
If Harold had died, his friends would have been standing around his coffin instead of drinking beers on someone’s deck, Crowley said.
Coles will never forget the moment Harold came back to life.
“We shocked him (with the AED), and he came off the ice and instantly started breathing. It was a hell of a relief . . . it was a wonderful moment for all of us.”
Coles said the moral of the story is five regular guys with zero training were able to operate the machine and bring a dead friend back to life.
Hume, a veteran firefighter with the Willowbrook Fire Department, said his CPR training definitely helped in Cox’s case.
“He was without a heartbeat for five minutes. I was glad to see that AED show up . . . as soon as he started breathing, I just started crying like a baby.”
Arstad said the incident demonstrated the importance of teamwork.
“One zap (of the AED) and the relief in the arena was huge. He came back to life!”
Carol Sheridan, manager of Oliver Parks and Recreation, said Cox’s near-death experience changed lives and procedures in public facilities.
“People are playing hockey later in life . . . facilities need to adjust to handle situations better.”
Special to the Chronicle