Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Chris Kunitz afterthought now 3-time Stanley Cup champ


By Larry Wigge

Chris Kunitz has always been one of my favorite stories.

He's this pugnacious player. He's still throwing his body around. He's still winning battles in the corners for pucks and doing all of the little things that has Kunitz a success in the NHL.

Not bad for a guy who not only was passed over in his NHL draft year ... and once went on waivers twice in 14 days.

"I've never been drafted at any level," Kunitz said. "So it wasn't something you were disappointed with."

But here he was, at 36-years-old, a three-time Stanley Cup champion -- 2007 in Anaheim and 2009 and 2016 in Pittsburgh.

Long road, sometimes even longer journey.

Beating the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks en route to a 16-8 record.

Yet, there were Kunitz in Game 1 against San Jose, laying a big hit on Joel Ward ... and then swiping the puck from and thwarting a potential breakaway. Kunitz also set up Pittsburgh for the first goals of the series.

"I think it's not a surprise," Sidney Crosby said. "He's found maybe more of a scoring touch than he's had in the past, but I think he's doing a lot of the same things and it's just nice he's getting results and getting recognized. Because he does a lot of things out there that leads to success."

Assistant coach Rick Tocchet said Kunitz was THE MAN who beat Tampa Bay, "He just kept going at them. Tampa had no answer for him. He kept getting in on the forecheck. He was hitting. I think he wore down a lot of their defense with his hits. He's a small guy, but he hits like a truck."

Long roads ... long journeys.

The Penguins went 33-16-5 after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in December, an impressive record that grows in stature when you consider they lost the first four games he coached. They were 14-2-0 in their last 16 games of the regular season, including 15 without Evgeni Malkin.

The Stanley Cup journey went from Chicago to Regina for Kunitz. While in Chicago, his family and friends gathered for dinner with hockey's greatest prize. In Regina, maybe it will inspire a young player to do the same one day and it gives him a chance to say thank you to his hometown that gave him the love for the game.

Sounds like the start of Kunitz' career.

He signed with Anaheim as a free agent in 2003 after four years at Ferris State, and put up some pretty fair numbers over parts of two seasons in the American Hockey League.

It was a promising start to his pro career ... until the franchise changed hands in Atlanta and once again wound up back in Anaheim.

In his 12th NHL season, he Kunitz has something to offer a Penguins team. Call it the IT factor.

Four goals and seven assists through the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup after scoring 17 goals and 23 assists during the regular season.

So, he is a character player, filled with energy.

Like ...

At Anaheim, he combined on a line with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne. In Pittsburgh, the left winger from Regina, Saskatchewan, has either played on a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

"You begin to think you've got security at one place and then BOOM, new city, new coach, new everything, a completely fresh plate," said Kunitz, who has made a home for himself with his wife Maureen.

"My road to the NHL has been kind of a work in progress," Kunitz explained. "Growing up, coaches and scouts always said I was too small to make it at the next level. My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship, go play college hockey and get an education. From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew."

He followed his older brother, David, who matriculated to college via a soccer scholarship. At Ferris State, Chris wound up becoming the CCHA Player of the Year at Ferris State in 2002-03, being named a first team NCAA West All-American and was a finalist for the 2003 Hobey Baker Award, given to the U.S. College Player of the Year.

Said Kunitz, "It wasn't until I started playing well at the college level that scouts started to come around. And, even though I wasn't drafted, I started to become comfortable with the idea that there might be something in pro hockey for me after college. I began to visualize the success I could have when I looked around and saw that the Ducks had another undrafted free agent like Andy McDonald playing big situations and big minutes."

Don't look at the statistics alone to see what Kunitz is doing for the Penguins ... his 35-goal season in 2013-14 along with 33 assists represent his single-season NHL high.

"Chris Kunitz is a guy who will end up on the scoresheet," said former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, now with Buffalo. "But his role is straight-line, aggressive, go-to-the-net hockey. We want him to be physical. If things aren't going well for him, he should always make sure he returns to that foundation."

Kunitz smiled me he heard that description from his coach and said, "I pride myself on being a blue-collar worker. If I don't hit and go to the net and bang some opponents then I'm not trying hard enough. If any of those things is missing from my game, I usually get uptight and hit and bang a little harder."

And that's the main strength of his game -- hard work, character and a winning attitude.

Said Kunitz, "Things were great after I got to know the guys in Pittsburgh -- and I've felt a little like I was in heaven since the morning of Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia, when our new son, Zachary, arrived."

The changes in Chris Kunitz' life and in hockey going from Anaheim to Pittsburgh were immediately upbeat, whether he was playing with Crosby or Malkin.

"My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship ... and go play college hockey and get an education," Kunitz said. "From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew.

"Definitely a late bloomer. I didn't even think myself that the NHL was something that could be realistic until I signed out of college. I played Tier 2 junior, nobody very often gets drafted out of the SJHL."

Kunitz continued to talk ...

"The fact that I played in the game where we won it made up for it all," said Kunitz. "I would have liked to score a goal or make more of a contribution. But the team reassured me that I was there because I helped during the season."

Said coach Sullivan, "He's obviously an important player for us. I think he plays a lot bigger than he is. He brings a physical element to the line that he’s on. He forces turnovers, he can play with pace. So, I think he helps with the speed game with the line that he's on."

Someone is always there, it seems, to speak up and give Chris Kunitz a chance to play.

Enter David McNab. The longtime Anaheim Ducks executive -- who was assistant GM at the time -- deserves the credit for spotting Kunitz and seeing something in him that many other NHL teams did not.

"Definitely, I talked to him quite a bit starting near the end of my junior year and then throughout my senior year," Kunitz said. "I sat down and had talks with him and he told me they were interested in me and certainly he was definitely an integral part."

McNab, who worked under GM Bryan Murray at the time, signed Kunitz to his first pro contract on April 1, 2003. It was no April Fool's joke.

No April Fool's joke ... for anyone.

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