The Airdrie hockey community is mourning the loss of Ryan Couling, who passed away on Nov. 22 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer at the age of 21.
Couling, who played for Airdrie Minor Hockey Association teams growing up, was a member of the Airdrie Lightning U18 AA boys’ hockey team for three seasons from 2016 to 2019. He also graduated from W.H. Croxford High School in 2019.
Shortly after his minor hockey career and while studying at SAIT, he was diagnosed with Fibrolameller hepatocellular Carcininoma (FHC) – a rare form of liver cancer – in April 2021. His fight against the disease lasted 19 months.
Airdrie Techmation Thunder General Manager Shaun Guest is a long-time family friend of the Coulings, and coached his younger brother Zach, who is currently a second-year player with the junior B Thunder.
Guest agreed the Airdrie hockey community is grieving the loss collectively, but standing by the Coulings in their time of mourning.
“They’ve been around the hockey community for as long as I can remember,” he said of the Coulings. “This is tough, for sure. Ryan fought for a long, long time, but all of a sudden this week, he started losing the battle.
“But he fought. In talking with the family, he was always in great spirits and fired up about beating this thing. He was a positive, positive young guy.”
According to Guest, for last week’s Thunder game, he said the junior B team created helmet decals with “RC” for each player to wear. They also made up a jersey with Couling’s name and his old number on it.
A few days before his passing, players visited Couling at his home before their road trip to Strathmore, sharing a photo with him and presenting him with the Thunder jersey, signed by all the players.
At tonight’s home game against the Rocky Rams, Guest said the Thunder will perform a pre-game ceremony as a tribute to Couling, in the form of a brief address and a moment of silence. His jersey will also hang above the team’s bench for their three games this weekend.
As well, Guest said the Thunder are going to donate all ticket sales, 50-50 sales, and apparel sales from tonight’s home game to the Couling family. The team will also have a donation box set up at the table.
“You do what you can to be supportive, but we just feel for the family,” Guest said.
(The game will begin at 8 p.m. at the Ron Ebbesen Arena).
There's also a GoFundMe campaign that was previously set up after Couling's diagnosis, which can be found here:
Support has come in from throughout the Heritage Junior Hockey League. Upon learning of Couling’s passing, the Thunder’s opponents tonight, the Rocky Rams, told Guest they are putting initials RC on their players’ helmets as a show of emotional support.
The Medicine Hat Cubs, whom the Thunder are playing on the road this Sunday, are also going to have a moment of silence prior to that game, and will donate proceeds from game-day revenues to the family as well.
Thunder vice-captain Jacob Cathcart said he met Couling in Grade 9, and the two bonded over their mutual love of hockey. Cathcart said he was privileged to call Couling a friend for many years.
“He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and had a really infectious personality,” Cathcart said. “He lit up every room he was in and I think he would have done amazing things in the world.”
The four-year Thunder veteran said the players have had the family in their thoughts every time they take to the ice this season.
“I think with Zach being on the team, who we all love so much as well as Ryan, it’s definitely been in our heads throughout the whole year,” Cathcart said. “We know how hard it has been on Zach, especially, so we’ve definitely had him in our thoughts all season.”
Thunder captain Dace Carlson concurred, adding Couling was always able to put a smile on people's faces.
“Ryan is going to be sorely missed by his friends and his family,” Carlson said. “We’re going to be there for his brother and the rest of his family, doing anything we can to ensure they remain in high spirits.”
Cathcart added that on the ice, Couling was “a solid defenseman with a lot of skill.” He added Couling brought the same tenacity he did as an athlete to his battle with cancer.
“I think the way he fought this horrific disease was a real-life superhero story that everyone could draw inspiration from,” he said. “Of course, my deepest condolences go out to his family.”