CHICAGO – Kenny McCudden is a hockey lifer, and so perhaps it seems strange he was following Tiger Woods around Medinah Country Club when his phone rang, opening a door with the Blackhawks.
Locked-out NHL players were seeking someone to oversee their on-ice individual workouts, hoping to remain in as good of hockey shape as possible during a work stoppage that dragged on for 113 days before finally ending Sunday.
McCudden – a Crystal Lake resident since 1997 – has worked as the Chicago Wolves’ skating and skills coach for almost 20 years, blending physical conditioning with situational drills, preparing American Hockey League players for the sport’s biggest stage.
So with their working futures in limbo, Hawks forward Jamal Mayers and captain Jonathan Toews reached out to McCudden during the Ryder Cup, inviting him to work privately with a small group of Hawks players as an independently contracted coach.
Toews oversaw practices for the first week of the lockout, but he soon discovered the workouts needed a coach’s eye, creating an opening for McCudden.
The two sides agreed to try it on a trial basis, giving McCudden a chance to get a feel for what the players were looking for while giving his pupils the opportunity to see if he was the right coach to prepare them for the season without knowing when it would actually begin.
“One skate got me 12 1/2 weeks,” McCudden said Monday at Johnny’s IceHouse, a day after a tentative 10-year deal between the players association and owners was announced.”It’s been awesome.”
For the 51-year-old McCudden, the part-time teaching job with the Hawks provided a working reunion with a franchise he spent six years with. At 17, McCudden worked as a Hawks stick boy, a task that led to him eventually being hired as the club’s assistant equipment manager and third trainer, beginning a lifetime love affair between him and the game.
So when the Hawks called him to see players through the lockout, McCudden wasn’t about to say no to a franchise that has meant so much to him throughout his hockey career. Former Hawks player and coach Denis Savard told McCudden his hockey life has now come full circle.
“You’ve gone from a stick boy to a trainer, and now you are a pro coach and you’re back in the fold with the Chicago Blackhawks,” Savard told McCudden at a recent youth hockey clinic the two were working at.
“[A history with the Hawks] has made it very special,” McCudden said.
Players have benefited from McCudden’s knowledge as much as the longtime youth hockey coach has enjoyed it. During 90-minute workouts, McCudden spends 75 percent of the time focusing on conditioning, with the remaining 25 percent working on game situations and scrimmages.
The Hawks are scheduled to begin training camp this weekend before starting what’s expected to be a 48-game season Jan. 19. Players admitted Monday while they have remained in decent shape, they know they’ll need time before they’re fully ready to compete at the level they’re accustomed to.
“It’s going to take a few games,” forward Dave Bolland said. “You can do [conditioning skates] all you want, but once you get into game mode, it’s a different game.”
That was part of McCudden’s charge. Two weeks into his stint, McCudden told Hawks coach Joel Quenneville that when the lockout ended, he’d have players’ hands and feet ready to go. Although players are able to maintain some level of conditioning in the gym, McCudden said they wouldn’t be adequately prepared to remain on the ice if they worked by themselves.
“To have him create new energy every day with new drills and keep us engaged – I don’t know how he was able to do it, but he was able to do it,” Mayers said Tuesday. “It’s one thing for me to be running the drills or (Patrick) Sharp or (former Hawks defenseman Brian) Campbell, but when you’ve got him there helping us out, it gives you a different perspective.
“Guys will listen when he’s got that wealth of knowledge.”
McCudden uses the same teaching techniques with the Hawks that he preaches with the Wolves and with the nearly 2,000 kids he works with each week. Although the NHL players compete and think faster than less experienced players, McCudden’s approach to the game doesn’t change.
As players have waited through the 4 1/2-month lockout, McCudden has seen them go through a series of mood changes. His workouts have seen them through long stretches when their body clocks are telling them it’s time to get into the routine of the regular season only to see the impasse between the NHLPA and owners drag out until last weekend’s 16-hour negotiating session led to the tentative agreement.
McCudden expects today’s skate at Johnny’s IceHouse to be his last with the Hawks, allowing him to return to his normal work schedule with the Wolves and with coaching youngsters. He fears that the lockout may have lingering effects with the game’s popularity, especially with fans, but believes the Hawks and the NHL need to be up and running to “stir hockey and everybody’s blood.”
Despite the uncertainty that remains, McCudden looks forward to seeing the game returning, having embraced his temporary employment with the club that gave him his first hockey job as a teenager.
“It’s been a good ride,” McCudden said. “To see the hands of a Patrick Kane, to see the intensity of a Jonathan Toews, to see the skating stride of a Patrick Sharp, to see the strength of a Marian Hossa – it’s pretty phenomenal. It’s a little different for fans to be up above and look down and see these players, but when you’re actually on the ice with premier players, it’s quite a treat.”