By Doug Kennedy
Kevin Czuczman has been up and down between the NHL and the American Hockey League with the Pittsburgh Penguins this past winter, and with the team in the bubble in Toronto.
Hailing from Port Elgin, he played Junior C in Walkerton, then Junior B in Waterloo, before heading to the OJHL with Newmarket, where he received a hockey scholarship to Lake Superior State University. His brother Luke played for the Bulldogs. Unfortunately I could not convince him to play, but he did practice with us as a 16-year-old. His mom Maureen still lives in Port Elgin and he has another brother, Mark.
His dad Paul recently passed away. I always enjoyed sitting at Bulldog practices with Paul on Tuesday nights, catching up on a lot of hockey information. The family is one of the nicest hockey families I have ever met.
During the season, he was their seventh defenseman for a couple of months, which means you dress for warm-up and then undress if the top six defenseman are healthy. This is what many NHL players do on a nightly basis. This is Czuczman’s fourth year with the Penguins organization. He signed a two-year contract with the New York Islanders when he graduated from university. Doug Weight had a lot of influence on Czuczman to sign with the Islanders, as he was a Lake Superior State alumni. It takes a special talent to be on a NHL roster this time of year, but to have his job you have to have a special mentality because I am sure he would love to be in that lineup.
A typical day in the bubble starts with Covid testing, then a team breakfast before heading off to meetings and training rooms set up for each team. Czuczman says “the NHL is going above and beyond to make sure players are safe and have as limited risk as possible. Once they get on the ice it is business as usual, as it feels like any training camp or practice. It has been such a unique and awesome experience; I am trying to enjoy every day.” He believes he is focused and prepared to go on a long playoff run.
Players have to wear masks at the hotel and the arena at all times. The NHL has tried to make every team feel like it is at home with team decals, familiar signage and items from their own dressing rooms, even on the hotel and dressing room floors. His team is at “Hotel X” on Lakeshore with Tampa Bay, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia.
Although he has spent a lot of the last six years in the American league, he is obviously a well respected player in the Penguins organization. Most NHL organizations want veteran players on their American league teams to influence new young players each year. I am sure Czuczman is one of those players.
When I talked to him earlier in the year when he was up with Penguins, he told me all the good things people say about Sidney Crosby are true. He made Czuczman feel comfortable from day one. He knew where his home town was and where he had played at school. He said Crosby organizes team functions that include all the players. Last year when Crosby was hurt, Czuczman was on the ice with him a lot. That is where he learned that Crosby is the hardest working Penguin on and off the ice. The assistant coaches were in charge of training with Crosby and Czuczman when he was rehabbing. I am sure the second best thing about not playing was really getting to know one of the greatest athletes in Canadian history; truly amazing for Czuczman, I am sure.
And the winner is…
Time for some NHL predictions. Steve McAllister has the Washington Capitals playing the St.Louis Blues in the final, with the Caps winning. Warren Beisel has the Carolina Hurricanes defeating the Chicago Black Hawks in the final. I asked him if he was kidding, but I should remember the last time I picked a winner was in 1989 when I picked the Calgary Flames. Brent Armstrong picked the Toronto Maple Leafs to defeat Colorado in the final. Mike Hackett picked Tampa Bay to defeat Colorado and Jeremy McQuillin picked his Boston Bruins to defeat Colorado. My pick for this year is my Philadelphia Flyers over Dallas.