Hockey

Crystal Lake resident, NHL assistant coach Kenny McCudden pitches in at D155 Predators practice

Adam Sacharoff, president of the D155 Predators hockey club, considered it good timing when he ran into Columbus Blue Jackets assistant coach Kenny McCudden at the Crystal Ice House.

McCudden, a long-time youth hockey coach and Crystal Lake resident since 1997, was about to jump on the ice for a coaching session with the Barrington Broncos. The two began talking and Sacharoff mentioned that the D155 Predators – made up of about 60 players from Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake Central at Prairie Ridge high schools – would love to have McCudden coach for a day.

It was a quick, "yes," from McCudden, not to the surprise of Sacharoff.

"He's always been a staple at the Ice House," said Sacharoff, whose son, Zander Marino-Sacharoff, plays on the varsity team. "His desire and his ability to give back to young players and the community is a constant reminder why families love the game and love to watch our (kids) as much as we do."

Many of the D155 Predators are no stranger to seeing "Coach Kenny" at the Ice House; some are closer than others.

"Funny story, he's my neighbor," said Prairie Ridge senior James Dingle. "He's been coaching and teaching me since I've been a squirt, since pee-wees. He's always been at the Ice House, but this is the first time I've had him in awhile.

"He really brings up the intensity at practices. We all love having him here."

Back home

On Thursday afternoon, McCudden laced up his skates and hit the ice with the D155 Predators. It's been a fairly common routine for McCudden, even as his coaching duties have taken him to Columbus, Ohio.

He always comes back home.

Before coaching the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League for 18 years, followed by the past five seasons with the Blue Jackets, McCudden coached out of the Crystal Ice House for more than 20 years with the Crystal Lake Leafs/Yellowjackets, working with local hockey players through camps and clinics.

His previous players included former Blue Jackets defenseman Jared Boll, who had a hand in bringing McCudden to Columbus in 2015. The two now coach together in Columbus, with Boll serving as an assistant development coach.

"Jared was a hard-nosed, heavyweight fighter type of player," McCudden said. "So it kind of went full circle that I used to work with him as a kid, then I worked with him as a pro and now we coach together. It's pretty neat how that type of thing works out."

McCudden said he's worked with over 125,000 hockey players throughout his career, many from the Crystal Lake area. He has also coached players from Barrington, Park Ridge, Glenview, Oak Park and Elmhurst, among others.

The Crystal Ice House, however, is a special place, McCudden said.

"This is my town, my roots are in this building," McCudden said. "These buildings mean a lot to me because of the amount of kids I ended up seeing over the years. As long as these directors and parents want me involved, I’m not going to say no."

Hockey royalty

McCudden, who got his start in hockey as a stick boy with the Chicago Blackhawks and later as their equipment manager, was inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame last year, an honor that ranks near the top of McCudden's accomplishments.

And there have been many.

Throughout his career, McCudden, 59, has worked for many NHL organizations, in charge of prospect camps for the Colorado Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers and St. Louis Blues. He also worked in the Ontario Hockey League.

McCudden was a skating and skills coach for the U.S. Women's National Team from 2011 to 2014 and scout for the silver medal team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Hoisting a Stanley Cup might be the only thing that would beat the Hall of Fame, McCudden said.

"I work with some incredible coaches on (Columbus head coach John Tortorella's staff), and I get a very close seat to the greatest players, so that’s pretty darn special," McCudden said. "When I step on the ice, from Montreal to Madison Square Garden, to Nationwide (Arena) in Columbus, each time I step on the ice, I look around me and say, 'Wow.' I love going to center ice, tapping that logo."

Even though he's reached the highest level, McCudden will always remember where it started.

"Knowing I’ve touched every aspect of the game is special." McCudden said, "Up until five years ago, I was still teaching 'Learn to Skate.' I couldn't give that up. I had 18 years with the Chicago Wolves and I didn't want to give up what I thought was the bloodline for a hockey club, which is 'Learn to Skate.'"

Zander Marino-Sacharoff was one of those young players McCudden taught to skate.

"It's kind of really cool," Marino-Sacharoff said. "I get to see someone from my childhood who actually got to coach in the NHL, and now he's coming back home to coach again. It's kind of emotional. You get to see where you were, first starting, to how far you have grown, and how much he's taught you."

Frozen hockey

Hockey, like many sports in the state, was paused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While practice is allowed, club teams are not allowed to play games because hockey is considered a "higher" risk for contact.

There was no spring season for the Predators, who started practicing in mid-August.

Meanwhile, the Amateur Hockey Association Illinois (AHAI) has directly reached out to the Illinois Department of Public Health to re-consider removing hockey from a "higher" risk category. Those efforts have been rebuffed.

McCudden said, now, more than ever, that it is important to keep playing, learning and teaching.

"Being on the ice, while we are still idle in Illinois, is important for development," McCudden said. "That's why I'm out here. They should be eight to 10 games into their season, but this is the next best thing to competing.

"I love that they’re still playing and having fun during a world right now that's a little bit in turmoil. To be able to get away from all of that is a good thing."

McCudden said he will continue to work with local players as long as he can.

"I’ve slowly been working with hockey clubs throughout Illinois throughout their pause, and I’m going to continue to work with them," McCudden said. "Working with these teams right now means an awful lot to me. There are some kids that I've worked with when they were extremely young, and now they’re in high school. You get a chance to see them grow up as mites, squirts, pee-wees, bantams, midgets, and that's pretty rewarding."

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