Ryan Straschnitzki felt at home as he was wheeled into a perch overlooking the ice at the Philadelphia Flyers' practice facility.
Below him, Flyers prospects in the same age range as the 19-year-old Straschnitzki skated in drills and in a hurry to impress, much like his days as a defenseman for the Humboldt Broncos before the bus crash that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall and other members of the organization came to visit. Defenseman Sam Morin heard Straschnitzki was in the building and popped by for a chat.
The hopeful Flyers paused during camp Friday and raised their sticks toward Straschnitzki for a traditional salute.
Straschnitzki was right where he wanted to be — at the rink, watching the game he loves.
"Just the smell of the ice coming in today brought back so many memories of your first time skating," Straschnitzki said.
Straschnitzki met the coaching staff and some top prospects during a break in his rehabilitation from the injuries suffered in April when a bus carrying the Broncos to a playoff game collided with a semi-trailer at a rural intersection, killing 16. Straschnitzki was among 13 more injured.
Straschnitzki was wheeled on a stretcher into Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia on May 31 and expected to rehab there for six to eight weeks. He has used weights almost daily to work on his arm muscles during physiotherapy sessions and has walked on a treadmill with the help of therapists. Sitting on a massage table, he's used laser focus for the simple task of tying the laces on his sneakers.
"I've made quite a bit of progress," he said. "The rehab pushed me to my limits."
Straschnitzki needs two hours in the morning just to complete routine tasks like a shower and getting dressed before he starts his exercises. He rehabs for about two hours, breaks for lunch, then has two more rehab sessions before he ends the day in exhaustion. With the same tireless work ethic he used to move up the hockey ranks, Straschnitzki said he was told he could return ahead of scheduled to his Airdrie, Alberta, home for the first time in almost eight months next weekend.
His family home is undergoing a $200,000 renovation to make it handicapped accessible and the Straschnitzkis will live in a hotel for the summer until construction is completed.
The Calgary Flames have talked to Straschnitzki once he's settled about a possible job in the organization.
"Hockey is my life," he said. "I've grown up talking about it, living it, playing it. I think if there's a job opportunity down the road, I think it's definitely option. Right now, though, I'm just focused on healing first and getting better. We'll see what happens."
The NHL has rallied around the survivors and families of the victims. Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald offered the Straschnitzkis use of his home and car when the family was in Philadelphia. Hextall, who stopped to compose himself at times, said the tragedy has brought out the best in hockey.
"Ryan's an inspiring young man. He's special, he really is," said Hextall, a former star goalie for the Flyers said. "He's not feeling sorry for himself."
Straschnitzki was among 10 survivors at the NHL Awards last week in Las Vegas at the invitation of the league and NHLPA. It was the first time so many Broncos had been together since the crash. They wore Humboldt jerseys and head coach Darcy Haugan, who was killed in the crash, was honored with the inaugural Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award.
"They're your brothers for life now," Straschnitzki said. "Just being able to see them, it's like time froze. You're in the room again, you're just enjoying the moment being with them. We all heal in our own ways. Just being with them at the NHL awards was amazing."
Tom Straschnitzki said he's tried to keep his son's spirits high during the grueling rehabilitation process.
"When he's down, we just try to push him back up and keep him on the straight and narrow," he said.
Straschnitzki dreams of hitting the ice again, this time playing sledge hockey — basically hockey on sleds for players with physical disabilities.
"It's my life, so I'd love to do it," he said.
Straschnitzki has never wanted to distance himself from the sport he's played since he was a boy. But finding his way back to hockey in any capacity perhaps remains a distant goal.
"I know it's going to take time," he said. "I just need to be patient."