Blue Jackets assistant coach Kenny McCudden has built a career working with people of all ages to improve their hockey skills and skating technique. His work is something he loves. And he's found a unique and special way to fill his life with that passion off the ice through a collection of over 300 skates that date from recent history to hundreds of years ago.
"I'm a collector and skates are my work, that and the fascination of skating," McCudden said. "The day I stop skating is going to be a very sad day because every time you step on the ice you feel like a kid. A day on skates is a wonderful day."
McCudden started buying old skates 25 years ago. He'd buy bundles of them from antique shops and parse through them before picking his favorites. He informed his understanding of each pair of skates' use and construction by finding historical documentation of skates that looked like what he had.
"It's a lot of research and a lot of pictures," McCudden said. "You can go in children's books and find Dutch kids skating. You see those pictures and then you can pair them to the skates. Or you look at the copyright of the book, and the book might be from 1880 and you see the pictures of the ladies putting on their skates and you realize you have skates like that."
As his knowledge of skates grew, so did his collection and now hundreds of pairs are displayed throughout his home in Chicago. Visitors will see skates in custom cabinetry, map tables, and inlaid in the walls.
Space not taken up by the skates themselves might be filled with the oil paintings he's used to identify skates over time, and other shelves are similarly filled with the books that document skates' use through the years.
When McCudden is in Columbus, he brings a couple dozen pairs with him to help him feel at home.
"My wife thinks I'm nuts," McCudden says. "But she's respectful of the passion. I think she really enjoys what I do for a living and she enjoys that I've been a teacher and educator and that I've gotten something out of it in life."
McCudden builds his collection through chance. He'll poke around in antique stores wherever he is. His favorite places to find skates are Nova Scotia and the northeast United States, but he's added to his collections from places as diverse as Nashville, Glasgow, and Hawaii.
"My goal is to find something unique," McCudden says. "I know each pair by heart. I know where I bought them, and the period they come from."
Skates in his collection are as diverse as the time periods and locations from which they came.
McCudden's oldest pair is over 1,000 years old and was made from the femur of a deer. He owns a pair where the inlays are pearl and the blades are made of highly polished silver. He can trace those back to a silversmith who worked for the Queen of England. And then there's the 1930's pair of CCM's that are made of kangaroo leather.
McCudden has pairs from around the world including England, Germany, the Netherlands and North America.
But so many of the skates in McCudden's collection are not mass-produced. They are the one-off pairs made by farmers, or people who couldn't afford ready-made skates. McCudden calls them "primatives" and they are constructed of blades often made of old flat files, mounted in soles of wood that were attached to the foot via leather, or sometimes canvas straps.
In many of the blades you can still see the well-worn markings of the file from its primary use.
"Those are pairs I'll buy because I'll think about the work and the thought that went behind them and it's beautiful," McCudden said. "They are truly a one off. I think of a farmer saying to himself 'I'm going to make my own skates."
As McCudden shows each pair of skates, he tells their story. He points lovingly to the acorn detail at the tip of a skate blade, or describes the Canadian wanting to make an easier means of transport down a canal.
He'll describe the importance of the size of the curl on the front end of a blade, or the different way a couple would have had to have skated in skates like the ones he collects. It's very different than how we skate today, for the record.
Some pairs McCudden will refurbish to show the detail on the skate blade or to add a layer of protection to the wood, but many he leaves as he receives them.
And starting a few years ago, McCudden decided it was time to share his collection with the rest of the hockey world. He displayed his collection at home games during his time with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, and has hopes of some day being able to make a few of his skates available to view at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"My idea behind that was so grandpa could be with his grandchildren and say 'grandpa skated in a pair of skates like that in 1925 when he was a little boy," McCudden said. "I want people to be educated that when it comes to what you're seeing hockey players skate in...there is a long history and a long line before they ever got to look like this.
"The skates transport you, that's where my mind takes me when I think about it all."
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