Twenty-one years of hard work have led to this. That’s what Chris “Cudi” Cutshall keeps telling himself.
The Aggies’ hockey team will play its final home game of the season on Saturday, and Cutshall will be one of the seniors honored. He’s been preparing for the end — especially since the Beehive Showcase in November.
After the first game of the tournament, Cudi got cleaned up before heading to the lobby to meet his family and friends who’d flown in from Alaska.
But they weren’t the only ones waiting for him.
Cudi emerged from the locker room to see more than 25 fans gathered, all waiting for a chance to talk to him. He smiled for pictures, flashing his trademark missing tooth. He signed autographs. He stood there for another 40 minutes while rink employees cleaned around them before it would all repeat the next day, and he did it without showing an ounce of his exhaustion.
He didn’t look like the bursitis in his knee made it excruciating to stand for more than 15 minutes — especially after his time on the ice. He signed posters and shirts while his right hand and wrist throbbed. And he’d do it again. Every day, for the next four days.
He refused to miss a single game that weekend. His coach, Todd Renae, wasn’t forcing him to play. And it was more than having his dad and childhood best friends in town.
Cudi had to play. Because, after the ACHA Nationals in March, the 24-year-old senior may never play competitive hockey again.
“I’m preparing for that moment, for that last time I touch the ice as an Aggie,” said the 5-foot-7 Anchorage native. “I don’t want to be weeping, wishing I had more time. I want to stand high, honored and proud of myself for being there.”
Fighting the odds
“He was always the smallest one on the team,” Cudi’s dad, Jim Cutshall, said. “But he always had the best work ethic, too.”
Jim told his son there would always be room on a team for the hardest-working player, and it was advice Cudi took to heart. When he was 11 years old, Cudi was diagnosed with diabetes. It had gone undiagnosed for so long his body was feeding on its own fat and muscle. He was hospitalized for a week as doctors fought to get his blood sugar under control.
The day he got out of the hospital was a hockey practice day, and Cudi insisted he needed to be there.
“I just wanted to prove everyone wrong,” Cudi said. “I was always overlooked. But I play in a barn, consistently in front of 2,000 people, but it can be 2,300, 2,400 on a packed night. Not many of them can say the same.”
The hard truth is that passion and hard work don’t often win out over size and speed. So Cudi isn’t just another hockey player in this Northern Utah town.
He is hope.
“They all like him. This is his crowd and community,” Jim said. “He didn’t want to go to college, but he’s glad he came here. It was the absolute perfect place for him.”
The toll of the game
Whenever Cudi was rejected, or a coach would underestimate his abilities, he’d ask himself if it was the end of hockey. He’d pray for an answer, but until he got one, he’d keep playing. He wouldn’t slow down.
His best friends from home said this was a quality they noticed years ago, even when coaches would pass him up or not give him much time on the ice.
“He’s gritty,” Max Kaercher said of Cudi, who was the best man at his wedding. “Cutter’s one of those kids you love playing with, but hate playing against.”
Torin Blaker said Cudi’s the only one of the group who’s still playing competitively.
“I miss it, I miss the brotherhood,” Kaercher said. “I always loved the competitiveness of hockey, but it really took a toll on my body with injuries.”
Jim said his son is at the same point, though he’s still as passionate as ever.
“For me, it got to the point I decided I’d rather keep playing until I’m old,” Kaercher said. “It’s not as competitive in the men’s leagues, but I’m not getting killed, either. I hope Cutter sees that, sooner rather than later.”
His father has a closer but somewhat different perspective.
“He could barely get out of the chair after breakfast this morning,” his dad said. “The conversation was always, ‘How bad do you want it? What do we need to do to get there? Is it possible? So that when you leave, you leave it in your way.’”
Cudi said those conversations have been instrumental in his outlook, especially for the past few years.
“Every shift. That’s my motto,” Cudi said. “Every moment, take it in. So even when I’m hitting the ice the last time, I’m not thinking about what I’m losing but looking at what I’ve created.”
The day after the showcase ended, Cudi was back at the ice rink to keep score for the rec leagues. He didn’t joke with the refs or chirp at his former teammates like he had the week before. He huddled at the scorekeeping desk as he sipped Gatorade and tried to get up the motivation to open his laptop and work on the homework he’d neglected all weekend.
He was worn down — emotionally as well as physically.
“It hit me when I got to the airport: sending my dad through security was the closure on my last Beehive,” he said. ”It was my last one. I didn’t want to leave, or for him to go, because it made it 100% official.”
USU had only won the first game out of the four, and for the first time, Cudi didn’t have the next one to look forward to.
“Every year. I’ve played competitive hockey for the last 21 years,” he said. “How do you cope when everything you’ve done comes to an end?”
As a sport psychology professor and consultant for USU athletics, this is a problem Richard Gordin is very familiar with. He said the emotions an athlete goes through when they’re near the end of their career are not dissimilar from the five stages of grief.
According to Gordin, there are four main ways an athletic career can end: an athlete can be cut from the team, they can age out (as can be the case with Division II hockey players like the Aggies, who are allowed to play for four years, with the option to petition for a fifth), they can freely choose to stop, and — most commonly — they can suffer a career-ending injury.
Cudi’s situation is a blend of the latter three. His right hand hasn’t been the same since he broke five bones in it last January. He’s scheduled to undergo surgery in March on his right elbow to repair damage on both his median and ulnar nerves. And then three months later, he’ll go back after graduation to have the same surgery done on his left.
“I’m already hurting, and the surgeries may make the choice for me,” he said. “With nerves, you never know how they’ll heal, so I may not be able to handle a stick after that.”
He’s tried to prepare for the moment. He’s prayed for an answer, for direction, and the surgery may just be the answer he’s been looking for.
“Athletes can suffer identity loss if they can’t play anymore, and when the sport’s been a big part of their life, it’s even harder,” Gordin said. “They can experience fear and anxiety on whether they’ll recover, or where they’ll be in the lineup if they do come back.”
Jim said growing up in Alaska makes it hard to see life beyond hockey.
“There’s this attitude of hockey being life or death, but it’s not,” Jim said. “It’s supposed to be fun, especially when they’re young, but when they go on, it’s different. I try to tell all the parents who come up to me that it’s not life or death. One day they won’t want to play anymore, and that’s fine. Life’s more than hockey. But I don’t know if they listen.”
Cudi himself struggles with this. He’s played for the majority of his life. In his spare time, he’s a volunteer coach and he gives private skating and hockey lessons. Even on nights when he’s working as a scorekeeper for the rec games at the rink, he makes time to do his team’s laundry so it’s fresh for game days.
He spends as much time as possible at the rink because, to him, hockey is home.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a four-day tournament at home or playing for a chance to take the National title back East, private lessons, volunteering with the Jr. Aggies, or scorekeeping for his former teammates’ rec games.
The shattered teeth, the broken bones, the torn muscles — it all adds up, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because his time playing at USU has an expiration date in March.
“I don’t want to ever look back and think ‘why didn’t I try?’ I don’t ever want to regret not going for it,” he said. “I’ll stay late and do the team’s laundry, or I’ll hang flyers in the freezing cold until midnight, but I’m not gonna hate it. Because one day, I won’t be here, and even these nights are ones I’m gonna miss.”
And if he can envision missing things like doing laundry, what of those remaining minutes on the ice? He knows very well how he’ll feel about that. And that’s why he plays like he’s fighting for a spot in the next stage, even though he knows he’s probably not.
Before it’s gone.