The luckiest man in Winnipeg said goodbye to his wife early on the morning of Dec. 10 and packed himself into a cab for the airport.
He wanted to be there early, getting into line at 4:15 a.m. for customs that would open half an hour later. It was a business trip, all very standard, with five games spread out over the eight days in Texas and Colorado.
The rest of the team would be arriving soon but at that very moment, a routine day became a desperate, life-threatening struggle for Rick St. Croix.
Without warning, he lost consciousness and slumped to the floor in full cardiac arrest.
Although some of the details of what transpired were lost in the confusion, St. Croix, the developmental goaltending coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, has been able to piece together a rough timeline of the next few minutes.
Rev. Mike Greene of Morden’s United Pentecostal Church, who had also been queuing for his flight in the same line, sprang into action — administering CPR for the first few seconds until on-duty RCMP officers Mike Turner and Mike Chateauneuf, trained for these sorts of medical emergencies, arrived to take turns applying chest compressions.
Next on the scene were the airport’s paramedics, Leah Kosolofski and Jason Holmes, who rushed in to continue with CPR. At some point during those first five minutes, a defibrillator was employed to jumpstart St. Croix’s heart. The clock was ticking.
“I was gone. They said for at least between two and four minutes I was dead. I haven’t said that very often.” – Rick St. Croix
The paramedics were the first to detect a heartbeat; St. Croix was stabilized and transported to St. Boniface Hospital.
“I was gone,” says St. Croix. “They said for at least between two and four minutes I was dead. I haven’t said that very often.”
In the meantime, Moose GM Craig (Zinger) Heisinger called St. Croix’s wife with the latest news. It was 4:30 and she had not yet returned to bed.
“Nothing good comes from a call that early in the morning,” recalls Michelle, who has been married to Rick for 42 years. “But a sense of calm just came over me. What Zinger told me was he was going to pick me up but I felt calm and said, ‘I’ll meet you there.’ It’s a strange feeling, for sure, and I truly understood that I didn’t know what we were walking into at the hospital. I had a sense it could go either way.”
Rick has a hazy memory of the heart attack and its aftermath.
“I remember darkness,” he says. “I remember peacefulness. It wasn’t a battle going on. I woke up (in the hospital) and saw loved ones around me and Zinger and (the team’s senior director of hockey and business operations) Brad Andrews — they were the first people there. The support was right all through the layers.”
In the hours that followed, a stent was inserted into his blocked left anterior descending artery by Dr. Kunal Minhas and he was out of surgery by 6:40 a.m. What seemed like an eternity has taken less than three hours.
On Dec. 12, a mere two days later, he was released from hospital. The only residual effect of his brush with death were his aching shoulder and chest muscles, which had been severely bruised by CPR compressions. On the way home from the hospital, Michelle and Rick were able to attend one of their granddaughter’s Christmas concerts.
Most perplexing, however, was that St. Croix had shown no obvious signs of heart disease. He had experienced no pain in his chest or extremities, which can be telltale signs of a heart attack.
A beloved and highly respected figure around the Winnipeg Jets organization, the 65-year-old St. Croix looks fit and trim — almost as he would have during a 11-year goaltending career in pro hockey, including 130 games in the NHL.
He has a regular workout schedule — three or four times a week, cardio and strength training has been a regular part of his routine at home and when he was on assignment on the road.
“You have no idea when that time, ultimately, is going to come,” says his youngest son, Mike, 26, who accompanied his mother to the hospital on Dec. 10. “He’s 65, in good health. Constantly working out and active.”
Amazingly, Rick returned to full-time work 10 days ago and expects to accompany the Moose on a road trip next week. There was no pressure to return to his duties early but St. Croix, who loves his job, was eager to get back into the fray.
It was all made possible by good fortune and the quick actions of James Richardson International Airport’s round-the-clock team of paramedics.
“There was enough blood going through that I wasn’t feeling the pressure in my chest,” says St. Croix, who has reached out to many of the people involved in his resuscitation and recovery. “I wasn’t feeling the symptoms in my workouts. I don’t understand why I didn’t… they call it the widow maker. If a guy goes down and they’re not there within about four minutes, the patient doesn’t survive.
“The paramedics said if there’s any place to do this, you chose the best place in the city. Everything in the process was so perfect. The nurses. I was the recipient of the work of a lot of hard-working people… I’m grateful for the system. People have complaints about the medical (system) in Manitoba and there may be reasons, but my experience was all positive.”
Holmes, one of the paramedics on the scene, later told St. Croix that he was one of only three similar cases over a 48-hour period to survive.
Christmas was a celebratory time for the extended St. Croix family, their four children — Richelle Friesen, Mike, Chris and Courtney — and eight grandchildren, the last of which was born on Dec. 18.
“We were very close to tears most days, my wife especially,” says Rick. “Just how grateful I am. We’ve been given more time. You ask, ‘Why?’ ‘How did it happen?’ And I appreciate it, by the grace of God. It’s beautiful.”
Michelle and Rick have come to understand the patients and their families aren’t the only ones to suffer. First-responders feel the impact, too.
“We were very close to tears most days, my wife especially. Just how grateful I am. We’ve been given more time. You ask, ‘Why?’ ‘How did it happen?’ And I appreciate it, by the grace of God. It’s beautiful.” – Rick St. Croix
“There is an understanding that comes with having been through that,” says Michelle. “To understand, No. 1, what they go through themselves. It isn’t routine for them. It’s traumatic and it’s emotional for them.”
Mike says his dad is the same man he’s always known, although he may have an extra spring in his step lately.
“My dad is the greatest human being I know,” he says. “Through and through, he’s the kindest, most uplifting, most generous, most positive person in the world. He was like that before and he’s like that now.
“I think he realizes how lucky he is and our family knows how lucky we are to still have him.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.