Superstition is as much a part of hockey as dental work.
So behind Steve Kuhn’s gapped grin and calm demeanor, there’s the notion that discussing Spokane Chiefs history in the making is simply asking for trouble.
“As soon as we talk about this – it’ll be the Sports Illustrated jinx,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said in a half-joking, halfway-serious manner. “But nonetheless, we have to talk about it.”
Hey – when something is tagged as an ironman streak, it’s absolutely worth a mention.
One of Spokane’s three overage players on this year’s team, Kuhn – a 5-foot-9, 172-pound center from the tiny Alberta town of Oyen – will take the ice for his 283rd consecutive Western Hockey League regular-season game tonight.
In his fourth full season in Spokane, Kuhn dispelled the notion that he was a “bubble” player early on and cracked the Chiefs’ roster as a 17-year-old for the 2008-09 season. He hasn’t missed a game since – including playoffs – and after tonight there are just five games remaining for Kuhn to etch his name in Chiefs history. No player in franchise history has played in all 72 games four straight seasons.
“I take a little bit of pride in it,” Kuhn said. “I’ve been pretty fortunate to stay in the lineup. … A little bit of luck, for sure, and a lot of preparation.”
“First of all, he’s not a real big guy,” Speltz said. “To be that durable and resilient – you have to be flat-out tough. You have to be willing to play through things. He’s a warrior.”
That seems to be the consensus on Kuhn.
Billet Brenda Nelson – an executive assistant with the Chiefs who sounds like a proud mother when she speaks about Kuhn – and teammate Darren Kramer also describe him as responsible, kind, unselfish, funny and smart.
“There was one time he came home last year and he was as sick as you can be, and all he wanted was to play,” Nelson recalled. “He was on the ice the next day for the game. He puts forth and gives everything he has, all the time.”
Kuhn has lived with Nelson all four years he’s been in Spokane – quite different from the farm life he knew growing up near the Alberta and Saskatchewan border, in a town with a population of 973. When Kramer, the team’s captain, came to Spokane last season, his temporary stay with Nelson quickly became permanent as Kuhn and Kramer formed an instant friendship.
“He was the first guy I met,” Kramer said, fighting back tears. “We became best friends five minutes later. He’s such a good guy on and off the ice. Everyone has a ton of respect for him and he makes everyone laugh – it’s pretty amazing, just like the fact that he’s played in every game.”
“I don’t want to jinx anything either, but that speaks volumes to who Steve is as a person,” Kramer said. “He never takes a day off. He’s never going to let you down. He’s the most reliable guy I know.”
The reliability, the resilience, the work ethic, his competitive instincts – all counteract the fact that Kuhn is not the most skilled hockey player. He’s a grinder – a blue-collar player with ice running through his veins and a fiery personality that flares up when provoked.
Kramer recalled an instance earlier this season when Everett’s Nick Walters laid a dirty hit on Dominik Uher and Kuhn didn’t hesitate to go toe-to-toe with Walters, – who has 5 inches and at least 20 pounds in size advantage.
“If you’re a casual fan, you might not even notice Steve Kuhn,” Speltz said. “But if you’re a hockey person, you really respect and appreciate him.”
If you’re Kramer and teammate Blake Gal you also like your hockey with a side of humor. Kramer and Gal are big on pranking Kuhn, be it hiding his wallet, car keys, or even teammate Marek Kalus in the back seat of his car to win a bet that Kalus wouldn’t ride in his vehicle anymore with Kuhn behind the wheel.
Kuhn doesn’t stand by without putting up a fight, naturally.
“Sometimes I come home and my room will be a complete mess and the mattress will be in the hallway and my closet is empty and right away I know it was Steve,” said Kramer, his tears turning to laughter. “Blake and I will be texting each other when we’re right next to each other making little plans on how to get him going and Steve will say, ‘You guys are scheming. You’re always scheming.’
“And it’s true. We are every time.”
It’s all part of the game.