SASKATOON – Robin Biggs was playing recreational hockey when halfway through the game he skated over to the bench and lost consciousness.
Biggs was having a heart attack.
“My teammates noticed I was in distress and swung into action,” Biggs said.
“The pressure pumps (from CPR) turned into punches as I was not responding. One teammate jokingly commented later that ‘it was great taking shots at you without you swinging back, but my hands were getting sore.’”
That was in November 2011 and Biggs, 59, says he’s alive today because the rink had a heart defibrillator.
Biggs was on hand Thursday as Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood on the ice in the same Saskatoon rink where Biggs collapsed and announced that the federal government is pushing ahead with a plan to put defibrillators in recreational hockey arenas across the country.
The Conservatives promised $10-million initiative during the April 2011 election campaign.
Harper said the goal is to have 1,500 of the potentially life-saving machines in rinks that don’t already have them. The government will also support training on the devices.
“Let me be clear, that means a defibrillator in every recreational hockey rink from coast to coast to coast,” the prime minister said.
The needs of about 3,000 arenas are to be assessed before the actual machines start rolling out this spring.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation says up to 40,000 Canadians experience sudden cardiac arrest each year and, on average, only about five per cent survive.
“This hit home to many of us in 2009 when distinguished photojournalist Tom Hanson suddenly collapsed while playing hockey with friends,” Harper said.
“Tom was someone who had travelled extensively with me over the years. He was in the prime of his life.”
Hanson was 41 and Harper said The Canadian Press photographer’s story “helped to spur us into action.”
The foundation says defibrillators could potentially save the lives of thousands of adults and children. It says CPR and defibrillation within the first three minutes may increase the likelihood of survival by 75 per cent or more.
“I want to stress — there are lives to be saved,” said foundation chair Dr. Doug Clement.
The Opposition NDP said the plan could help prevent deaths, but it suggested the government could further.
“One concern we do have … is that obviously in Canada we tend to look at things that happen around hockey, but (sudden cardiac arrest) is obviously not limited to hockey. We’re hoping that this sort of philosophy and these policies will apply to other sports installations as well,” said New Democrat sports critic Matthew Dube.
“It’s a step in the right direction and we hope that it’ll be something that’s applied everywhere, not just in hockey arenas.”
Dube said people who play basketball, for example, could need access to the same equipment.
Harper, who is known to be an avid hockey fan, said the government is taking it one step at a time.
“The reason we’ve chosen hockey is it does present certain higher risks and these kinds of incidents are unfortunately common in hockey rinks, because it is such a high stress sport, a lot of stopping and starting,” he said.
“I think the key, if we consider any expansion in the future, will not necessarily be for different sports, but where else in a community would you locate a defibrillator, so that it’s most likely to be available when people actually experience a cardiac arrest?”
Biggs said he’s feeling good, although he has not returned to the game.
He believes defibrillators should be in more places such as shopping malls and community centres.
“Cardiac arrest doesn’t choose where it happens, or you don’t choose where it happens,” he said.
After the defibrillator announcement, Harper met with Saskatchewan aboriginal leaders at a downtown Saskatoon hotel.
The prime minister said they talked about the economy and “some of the challenges and opportunities” facing aboriginal communities. He did not take questions about the meeting.
“It is my hope that by meeting with these leaders on economic development that together we can come up with some practical measures to help create jobs for aboriginals and to encourage aboriginal youth to reach their enormous potential through education, training and employment opportunities,” he said in a news release.