The 2017-18 Wichita Thunder team had done something that no prior team had done since the club joined the ECHL – make the playoffs. The club finished with 34 victories, earning a fourth place finish in their division. They took on the Colorado Eagles, giving them everything they could handle before falling in six games.
Reaching the playoffs was both exciting and disappointing as the team was happy to finally get that monkey off their backs, but it was bittersweet as they wanted more for this club that simply reaching the playoffs. They were clearly not satisfied with the final outcome to their season.
No player represented that feeling more than forward Ralph Cuddemi. Not only did he have the most successful season of his career, but the forward enters this year looking to take the Thunder all the way to the Kelly Cup title, and is communicating to one and all that nothing short of that goal will be acceptable.
A Past Building Toward the Future
The 2017-18 season was the best of Ralph Cuddemi’s career. He began the season with the Fort Wayne Komets, playing 10 games there before coming to Wichita. After joining the Thunder, the forward scored 31 goals and added 27 assists in 59 games. That gave him a total of 64 points in 74 total games.
A year before, Cuddemi was with the Utah Grizzlies, where he scored 27 goals and added 25 assists in 64 games. This actually become the trademark for Ralph. Since beginning his junior career with the Georgetown Raiders in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), the forward had always made it a point of improving on his performance from the previous season.
In 2010-11, he appeared in 30 games, scoring 9 goals while adding 14 assists. A year later, he moved to the Mississauga Chargers, where injuries limited him to only 18 games, yet he still provided 7 goals and 10 assists. The next season, Cuddemi played in 46 games, scoring 27 goals and adding 36 points for a total of 63 points.
Giving It the Old College Try
At the end of his third year in the league, Ralph Cuddemi was offered a scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. This gave him an opportunity to gain an education while also still being able to play hockey. He opted to take the scholarship, a decision he has considered one of his wisest.
“Looking back now, I think it was one of the best things I could’ve done getting my education, getting my degree and playing really competitive hockey. I think it’s done a lot for my development.
“Dave Smith was my coach up there for four years and he had a lot to do with my development. He not only taught me how to be a hockey player, but how to be a person away from the rink, and I think going to college is something that I would recommend to somebody just because of the fact that you get a chance to develop, you get a chance to get your education and you still get a chance to play at a high level in hockey.”
Ralph continued to improve on the ice as well. In his freshman season, the forward scored 4 goals and added 6 assists in 30 games. The next year, however, his numbers took off. In 41 games, he produced 32 points, including 15 goals.
A year later he would reach 22 goals and add 17 assists in 37 games, setting a single season high in both categories. Those marks did not last long, as his senior season saw him appear in 39 games, scoring 20 goals while adding 22 assists for 42 points. That gave him a career total of 61 goals and 123 points in 154 games.
Not only did Ralph excel on the ice, but he proved to be an academic star as well. He would graduate with a 3.66 GPA average and was twice elected to the Atlantic Hockey All-Academic team. He was named the team’s captain in his senior season. That leadership proved to be pivotal, as the Griffins advanced to the final four in the Atlantic Hockey in three straight seasons, the first time they had done that in school history.
The Next Stage of Life
After graduating from college, Ralph Cuddemi joined the Florida Everblades for the final three weeks of the 2015-16 season. He appeared in nine games for Florida, scoring 2 goals and adding 3 assists. A year later he would begin with the Everblades, before being traded to Utah.
Entering the 2018-19 season, Ralph is looking to continue a trend he has followed throughout his hockey career. Each season he has improved his statistics, and is expecting nothing short of that this year. However, his aspirations are much higher, as reaching the playoffs is no longer an acceptable enough goal either.
“Everyone wants to move up, but I am super thrilled to be playing in Wichita. (Head Coach) Malcolm (Cameron) and I had plenty of conversations over the summer. There was interest to go to Europe, but I don’t think that’s in my best interest. Malcolm is giving me every opportunity to move on to the next level but, when I’m down here, I want to do everything that I can to win a championship. That’s what we’re talking about here, you work hard in the summer so that you can make sure that you’re playing in May and June. Make sure that you’re doing all the little things each day to get yourself closer to a championship.”
Since his arrival in Wichita, Cuddemi has been given every opportunity to showcase his talents. It was one of the most important messages that Coach Cameron gave him upon his arrival with the Thunder, and he has made sure that no player is going to outplay him at any time during a game or at any moment during practice.
“Coach Malcolm put me in every opportunity possible and he started to see that my work ethic and my skill on the ice would increase if you gave me the opportunity and it did right off the bat. You just can’t take days off, so I tried to focus myself on going out and trying to enjoy this every day. Making sure that my work ethic was the first thing that I brought to the rink and then the rest will figure itself out.”
While his coach gave him the chance to thrive in the Thunder system, Ralph is most appreciative of the fact that his teammates treated him as a member of the Wichita Thunder from the moment he walked into the locker room.
“For whatever reason, I got traded here to Wichita and from day one to the last day of the season this group of guys were amazing. The moment I walked in, they welcomed me. I think that’s the biggest part for a player coming off of a trade. You have to make new friends and you’re in an atmosphere where you don’t really know anyone. Everyone was great, introducing themselves right away. I think that was one of the main things that helped me.”
A Culture Ready to Win
It has been that atmosphere that lured Ralph Cuddemi back to Wichita this year. After two highly productive seasons, many opportunities were available, but the forward wanted to be a part of the special culture that had been established with the Wichita Thunder.
“Wichita has been great for me. I’ve had a lot of success here. It’s a team that I’ve wanted to be a part of and, when you find out that most of the guys from last year are returning, you start to get more excited and more thrilled about being in Wichita. That definitely helped to make my decision to come back an easy one.”
Because so many players have returned from last year’s team, this is a highly motivated group expecting to bring a championship to Wichita. The team is both motivated by the success of last season as well as the disappointing conclusion to the playoffs.
“We made the playoffs and that was really good. Obviously, when you get knocked out that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth when you’re watching other teams still playing. You know you’re not going get a shot at that Cup so, with a lot of returning guys, it’s going to definitely be helpful to know that that bitter taste is still left in our mouths, and we don’t want to forget about last season, but we definitely want to build off of that because, with a team with this talent and work ethic that we have in the locker room, I think we have a really good shot at going to the Cup.”
Remembering How He Got to This Point
While the drive to win a championship is what spurs Ralph Cuddemi, he is most appreciative of the opportunity that hockey has provided to him. Few get to play a game as their career, and Ralph is taking in every advantage he has gained from playing the sport he loves most.
“I wake up and I have a great time just coming to the rink and seeing all the guys. This is something I’ve done every single day and it’s something I don’t ever want to stop doing. I wish when you get older you could just kind of reset the clock and start over, but that doesn’t happen.
Hockey has pretty much done everything for me. It’s given me a college degree, it’s given me friends, it’s given me opportunity to travel around the U.S. and Canada. When I was in college I went to Alaska. I probably would’ve never had the chance to go to Alaska if I’m not playing college hockey. Playing here in the ECHL, coaches giving me an opportunity to show who I am, to show my skills, who knows where that will go in the end. It’s definitely something that I’m enjoying and it’s definitely something I want to keep doing for a really long time.”
This is also an opportunity for him to start giving back in the same way that his parents helped to spur his career. It was not easy for his mom and dad to get three boys to various rinks on time, but they made sure that their sons had the opportunity to play the sport they loved and to do it at the highest levels.
“My parents were dropping off, picking up. It wasn’t easy when we were so close in age but not playing on the same teams. My grandparents were helping out but it was still a lot of work for them. I definitely appreciate it, my brothers and I. My parents figured out a way to make it work and they are still my biggest fans.”
It is that kind of commitment that his parents showed him which has given Ralph his own focus for the future. He knows he has a shelf life on how long his professional hockey career will last, so he wants to make sure that he gives the next generations of players the same kind of opportunity that his parents gave him.
“I’d like to give back to young kids and share my experiences with them. I think that that’s something I really didn’t get growing up because I feel like hockey is being taken to the next level now. In Canada, there are a lot more kids playing, there’s a lot more development, so I definitely want to be a part of that. To help kids to understand their path sooner so I can help them figure that out instead of them trying to figure it out at the last minute.”
This Thunder Team Came to Play
Entering Friday night’s game, the Wichita Thunder find themselves at 1-1-0 two games into the season. Ralph Cuddemi has yet to find his name on the scoring sheet but, if past seasons are any indicator, there are two things you can be sure of. First, this will be the most productive season of the forward’s career. Second, the Wichita Thunder are likely to reach heights the club has never attained in their time in the league. That’s the one message you can be sure that Ralph Cuddemi is ready to communicate with his play each night on the ice.
Images of Ralph Cuddemi with Wichita Thunder Courtesy of Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier