The bottle cap was one of those plastic numbers, the kind you twist off to the sound of carbonation escaping.
Sent into motion more than a year ago by a mad scientist named Kenny McCudden, it glided across the smooth surface of his kitchen table perfectly — a miniature hockey puck on a fresh sheet of “ice.”
This was not a game of table hockey, though. It was an experiment. At the opposite end of the table was a cardboard “prototype,” which McCudden — a mechanically-minded Blue Jackets assistant coach — had constructed after watching players scramble for rebounds and loose pucks.
“That led me to, ‘What can I build that can recreate those bounces and skips and floppy pucks?’” said McCudden, a renowned skills coach who started out as a stick boy with the Chicago Blackhawks in the late 1970s. “My vision was, ‘How can a puck be thrown down right back at a player’s feet for him to be able to react … whether it’s on his stick, it’s in his feet — where he’s got to dig it out — or it’s on his opposite side, like his backhand side?’”
The answer was at the other end of the table.
‘I think I’ve got it’
After flicking the bottle cap toward his prototype, which was basically a curved scoop, McCudden was thrilled to see it bounce off exactly how he’d envisioned.
“I noticed that the bottle cap never came off the same way,” he said. “I thought, ‘You know what? I think I’ve got it.’”
It is now called a “Rebound Deflector,” which officially made its debut at a Blue Jackets practice during the 2017-18 season. Fox Sports Ohio even did a segment about it during a broadcast that season, although that model turned out to be the first of two full-size prototypes.
“I call it the George Foreman Grill,” said Blue Jackets assistant Brad Larsen, who has known McCudden since his NHL playing days. “One day, he brought it out (at practice) and I was like, ‘Kenny, this is great.’ It’s brilliant.”
It is not, however, the end of the story — not even the beginning.
McCudden’s invention, albeit his most popular, is but one of multiple innovations he has used over the years to help hockey players — a small part of what makes him one of the most respected skills coaches in the game and a fascinating person.
“His repertoire and application of the drills to each specific player are off the charts,” said Bill Zito, Blue Jackets senior vice president of hockey operations and associate general manager. “He could punch the clock and do just that, and you’d be getting the most proficient, best, skill development coach on earth — and you’d be the happiest (general manager) in the world.”
The Jackets, who hired McCudden in 2015 as the NHL’s first full-time skills assistant, are indeed happy to have him, but not just for his contributions on a practice rink.
“That’s maybe 5% of what you really get,” said Zito, who first learned of McCudden while working in Chicago as a player agent. “You also get the character of the man, the personality, the enthusiasm, the friendship, the zeal for life, the compassion for humanity and just his love of hockey. I mean, he has a hockey museum in his house! Who has a hockey museum in their house?”
A lifetime of tinkering
The house in question is located about an hour north of Chicago in Crystal Lake, Ill.
McCudden has dozens of hockey sticks there, along with other gear from NHL players. He has scads of memorabilia, numerous pairs of antique ice skates, “thousands” of antique golf clubs, and he is continually on the hunt for more.
Much of his furniture is antique too, refurbished by him.
“Since the age of 9, I’ve tinkered with furniture, tinkered with all sorts of antiques, and obviously sporting antiques,” McCudden said. “I enjoy it. I can get lost tinkering for, honestly, seven or eight hours — and the seven or eight hours disappear because I’ve loved what I’ve been doing.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.
“He’s put so much thought into it,” Larsen said. “I never second-guess him when he’s like, ‘I’ve got an idea.’ Some of them have panned out and some of them haven’t, but that’s why you keep trying stuff. He’s always trying to be an innovator; that’s just him.”
Most of McCudden’s “tinkering” efforts are tied to hockey, stemming from three-plus decades as a skating and skills instructor, predominantly in Chicago. He estimates that roughly 125,000 players have worked with him in that time, “give or take,” including about 1,200 professionals, and his goals are the same for pee wees to pros:
He wants them all to improve and enjoy the process, which has fueled his experimental endeavors.
Years ago, McCudden used to scour construction sites for discarded wood from I-beams and use that to assemble his own deflection and rebound boards, attaching the plastic from rink boards to them to create a good bounce effect.
Many of his pro clients had never seen anything like it, much like the Blue Jackets when McCudden first pulled his Rebound Deflector onto the ice.
“My mind is not done tinkering yet when it comes to aids that are going to help me,” McCudden said. “I’ve got a couple more inventions coming too.”
Tailor-made for teaching
McCudden loves golf, so it is no surprise that he studies golf coaches like David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon for instructional methods to help hockey players.
“They work around their pupil, which is no different than a hockey athlete,” he said. “You have to work around them because you’re never going to make this guy into that guy, and so forth.”
Some players skate a different way. Others have unique ways to shoot, pass or even fill open spaces.
“Everybody brings something different to the table,” said McCudden, who spends most of his summers working with groups of pro and college players. “That’s where you have to work around a player. And if I can bring up the odd invention …”
The mad scientist cannot help but laugh.
“That helps them all, I guess.”