The past year taught Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Kevin Czuczman that life changes fast.
So much so that in a season he describes as an “absolute roller coaster,” the leaguewide shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic is just the latest dip.
Czuczman also had to ride the ups and downs of two concussions, a prolonged stint in Pittsburgh as a scratch and, most notably, the death of his father, Paul Czuczman, on Nov. 30. He reflected on all of those during a video call with reporters last week from home in Port Elgin, Ontario.
“This is the time of the year, not now, but say maybe a month or two from now when you come home from the season, and (my father and I) used to sit on the back patio and talk and reflect,” Czuczman said. “It’s definitely hard not having him here. It’s just one of those things that it’s something you’ve got to live with and you’ve got to find a new normal. It definitely was a kick in the teeth. There’s not too many words I can put together to describe what he meant to me as a person and for my family — me, my brothers and my mom.”
Czuczman cites his father as the most important hockey influence in his life, and he has reminders of that every day at home. His father’s bar room features framed memorabilia from important moments in Kevin’s career, including his first NHL jersey with the New York Islanders and game pucks from his first game and point.
“This was his pride and joy,” he said, turning his computer around to show everyone on the call. “He put his heart into this room and, like anything else in his life, he didn’t half-ass it. It kind of gives you the chills being in here.”
Czuczman said the Penguins coaching staff and his teammates were incredibly supportive as he returned to the ice. Forward Thomas Di Pauli and former Penguins captain Garrett Wilson both experienced the death of a parent during Czuczman’s tenure in the organization, and he said helping them through their grief ended up benefitting him during his own experience.
On the ice, the season was tough at times. Czuczman, who prides himself on being able to play almost every night, was limited to only 38 games with everything that happened. He was also one of the most vocal believers that the Penguins were capable of making a late surge to the playoffs, and that was seemingly taken away when the AHL shut down on March 12.
It has to sting a little bit extra for the 29-year-old Czuczman, who has played in only five postseason games over six seasons in the league.
“Honestly, you never know what can happen in playoffs,” he said. “In the NHL, you see those 8 seeds going all the way to the final and stuff like that. Just getting in, you have a chance to really put a legacy on your career. We had a really great group, and it just sucks that we’re going through this right now. You don’t get younger; you get older, unfortunately.”
In the event the season can restart, Czuczman has been keeping up with workout instructions from Penguins strength coach Mike Joyce. He’s also been following the news and watching a lot of Netflix or doing yardwork to unwind.
Should the effects of the coronavirus bleed into next season, Czuczman at least knows where he’ll be playing as he signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh last summer.
No matter what happens, the craziness of 2019-20 will definitely influence how he handles it.
“It’s just bizarre not to be in the lineup, whether it’s injuries or … it’s different things like that,” Czuczman said. “Definitely, it made me a better person, more so off the ice than on the ice I think. It really put things in perspective and I learned to enjoy it a lot more. Little things you might have taken for granted in the past, you appreciate a lot more. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I took from this year is how fortunate we are to do this for a living, for a career. It was a really wild year and, yeah, I hope it still goes on.”
Tyler Piccotti has covered the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for Times-Shamrock newspapers since 2017. In the Penguins Insider blog, he provides a look at NEPA’s only professional hockey team, sharing analysis and insights that go beyond the game sheet. A 2015 graduate of Syracuse University, he also has written for Bleacher Report, The Post-Standard and Lacrosse Magazine. Contact: email@example.com; 570-821-2000; @CVPiccotti