The most impressive item on Jason Duda’s coaching resume came before Duda was even officially a coach.
After the Thunder fired Brent Bilodeau after nine games in the disastrous 2009-10 season, Duda was given the job on an interim basis while on injured reserve in what proved to be his final season as a player.
Duda, perhaps Wichita’s best-known player in the franchise’s two-decade history, survived that nine-win campaign and was named Kevin McClelland’s assistant after McClelland was hired to replace Bilodeau in 2010.
In his fourth season as a Thunder assistant, Duda is earning more responsibilities and learning how to teach a sport at which he excelled. But his progression began with an experience he wouldn’t mind forgetting.
“Would you like to throw it away? Sure,” Duda said. “Were there a couple of years I played here on the team that I’d like to throw away? Yeah, there were a couple of those, too. There’s ups and downs all the time. That year was tough because I was playing with those guys and I was only supposed to (coach) for about seven or eight games while I was on IR.
“…It was tough, but if you want to talk about a learning experience, yeah. Not too many people are going to go through years like that, and it was interesting to see how I handled it and how players handled it.”
The 38-year-old Duda owns several franchise records from a Thunder career in which he scored 870 points in 14 seasons, teaming with Travis Clayton for many of those years to form two-thirds of a prolific scoring line.
Duda is probably the person most connected with the Thunder – his tenure embodied the identity of a then-budding organization as he achieved both 60 points and 60 penalty minutes in six seasons.
As a coach, Duda finds his playing experience helpful. He recognizes situations in which corrections are needed but understands the difficulty in implementing those fixes, since players often have to retrain their muscle memories to establish new patterns and act mostly on instincts rather than what they have just been taught.
“You don’t really see the game that much different when it comes to the on-ice stuff,” Duda said. “…It’s just a lot easier, as a coach, to say we have to correct this. As a player, it’s a little more difficult because you’re out there and you’re playing and your intensity is so high.
“As a coach, you can kind of sit back and see everything that is going on. You try to help guys with what they can do better, and that’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to let the players play. You give them a skeleton and then they fill it in.”
The relationship between McClelland and Duda has been effective and grown to a point where each coach feels comfortable offering opinions without worrying how they may be received – although, Duda admits, he does more listening than opining.
McClelland has shown during his four seasons in Wichita that he is willing to nurture aspiring coaches; aside from Duda, McClleland has also allowed recently retired defenseman Travis Wight to join the staff as he transitions to a spot behind the bench.
“Mac has always been that guy,” Duda said. “I think he learned it from his time in Edmonton (as an NHL player), winning Stanley Cups, to take care of the people that you’re with and you don’t forget what people have done for you in the past. You’ve got to remember that someone had to give you an opportunity to be where you’re at, and that’s kind of how he does it.”
The partnership has been so productive that Duda believes he is ready to become a head coach himself. For now, he’s handling a power-play unit that ranks second in the Central Hockey League.
Moving over a spot behind the bench could require Duda to leave Wichita, where he has played or coached since 1995. He has had opportunities to leave before and is finding it more difficult to turn them down.
“It’s something I would like to do,” Duda said. “I would like to get my own team and build a team and do it on my own. I was lucky enough to learn from a guy like Kevin McClelland, who has won just about everywhere he goes. It’s been a great learning experience for me being his assistant.”