When hockey players meet with Chicago Wolves skating and skills coach Kenny McCudden in his home, it usually takes an hour or two until they sit down to talk. Before they do, they get a history lesson.
A hockey fan and history buff, McCudden has covered his walls in historical items, from skates and sticks to pucks, jerseys, and beyond. The pieces not only take a few hours to fully absorb, but tell the stories of McCudden’s career and the sport itself.
The collecting bug bit McCudden at a young age. Though a Chicago native, it was a member of the St. Louis Blues who gave the youngster one of his early pieces of memorabilia: a stick – the first of what would become many – from Bob Plager, a 14-year National Hockey League veteran, at Chicago Stadium.
“It kept my dream alive,” McCudden said. “I was a little boy when I got that stick given to me… But that one stick kind of keeps you straight and keeps your dream alive.”
From there the passion grew, as did his collection, which now focuses primarily on golf, hockey, and Abraham Lincoln memorabilia.
“Some kids collected cards as a young kid,” McCudden said. “I started collecting clubs and hockey sticks and old skates, along with some baseball cards and this and that. But usually my baseball cards went in the spokes of my tire.”
McCudden has found the items in his collection all over the world, using his personal and professional travels throughout the United States and overseas as an opportunity to unearth new additions. Once they are safely back in Illinois, he sets about readying them for display.
“You call it putzing around with nothing to do,” said McCudden, who has been refurbishing items since the age of 10. “Beyond shooting pucks and hitting golf balls, I love going into the garage and tinkering.”
While restoring the older skates, sticks, and pucks, McCudden tries not to return them to a new state, but rather remove surface rust, recondition the leather, and clean up the products. He estimated he averages three hours per pair of skates, an hour or two for a golf club, and up to a few weeks for a larger furniture item.
But for McCudden it is worth the time and energy of searching, restoring, and displaying them because of what one can learn from individual pieces and the collection as a whole.
“I just want everything to be an original, different, odd, unique, and very interesting to me; knowing possibly how it was made, who used it, and that type of thing,” McCudden said. “Whether you grab a kid’s hockey stick and think about a kid playing on a pond or grab an old golf club and think of a guy playing in 1900 at St. Andrews with it, you wonder who they were, the story behind it, and hopefully they got pleasure out of it.”
His collection certainly tells a story, including pieces dating back to the Civil War era, turn-of-the-century photographs, and an early pinball machine built in Chicago in 1930 and still in working condition.
“If it’s got skating on it, and it’s old, I’ll try to buy it, and I’ll try to preserve it, and I’ll try to bring it back to life and display it,” McCudden said.
The centerpiece, however, is his assortment of antique skates. Estimated to be between 300 and 350 years old, the pairs come from Holland, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States and many utilize a wooden platform, a screw, and straps to attach to what was usually the skater’s clog.
Another pair, one of his more recent and unique finds, he found this summer in New Hampshire. The pair, likely crafted by a farmer, consists of a blade made from a worn-out steel rat-tail file that was bent and hammered into a blade with an ornate curled toe. The uniqueness of the skates he has collected is what makes them special.
“I cherish those because most of them are one piece, a one-off,” McCudden said. “They were never reproduced. Pieces that I’m getting…whether they were made from a farmer, as folk art, you’ll never get a second pair ever made again like that.”
After many years collecting memorabilia, McCudden has evolved into somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to the history of his works. Although he utilized books and encyclopedias for research when he was younger, the coach estimates he could tell the background of a piece without looking it up by his late teen years.
This skill came in handy, even during a 15-year period where he stopped collecting due to his busy schedule. McCudden considers it a good thing that he took a recess from his hobby, joking he might be considered a hoarder were it not for the break. But the love of the sport, the history, and the experience brought him back to the pursuit he began as a child.
“Well when you have a passion for the game of hockey, it’s easy,” McCudden said. “I wanted to bring something back to life and never see it get discarded and get thrown out, because I knew it was a part of history, or at least a part of history for me.”
McCudden is now adding his own story to skating history, providing his expertise to hockey players of all ages and levels of play. In addition to working with the Wolves, with whom he has been involved on and off since the inaugural season in 1994-95, he has served as the skating and skills coach for the USA Hockey Women’s National Team since 2011 and owns and operates Ice Company Hockey Schools.
His office is lined with pieces that were gifted to him or acquired from his personal involvement in the sport, including his championship rings and medals from his time with the Wolves and women’s national teams, respectively.
“I think it’s a story within itself because I feel that, whether you’re a coach or whether you’re a player, you should know the history of the game,” McCudden said. “You should know what number [Maurice] “Rocket” Richard wore; you should know how many Stanley Cups Henri Richard, his brother, won; you should know that Ken Dryden won six Stanley Cups in the period of eight years; you should know that John Anderson is a winner as a coach of the Chicago Wolves and has won many times in various leagues.”
While these pieces help McCudden reminisce on his experiences and the history of the game, he has more goals he would like to achieve and, subsequently, more memorabilia he would like to add to his collection. One of the items at the top of the list is another Calder Cup ring.
“I’m ready for the next challenge and the next challenge is getting back to the Chicago Wolves,” McCudden said. “Our season is right around the corner.”