For the first time in more than eight years, Chris Kunitz woke up Sunday morning and was no longer a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I guess it’s kind of still surreal that we’re leaving and going somewhere else,” Kunitz told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a phone conversation Sunday.
Kunitz is now a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning after he signed a one-year deal with them Saturday that’s worth $2 million, plus another $1 million that’s available through incentives.
Although the Penguins apparently did not express much interest in retaining Kunitz, forcing him to look for work elsewhere, leaving Pittsburgh will be anything but easy for Chris, his wife Maureen and their three children.
“It sinks in more and more as things go on, the text messages and calls that you get and give to people,” Kunitz said. “This place has been our home for eight years. There’s a lot of people outside of hockey that we’ve come across and have become great friends with.
“People have really helped out our family with us traveling so much as hockey players. They’ve been really supportive of my wife, and we’ve become best friends with them.
“Still some of the toughest stuff is to come. We’ll cross that bridge. The memories and the people we’ve met are things that we’ve almost taken for granted because we’ve been here so long.”
Kunitz has played 884 NHL games for three franchises. One, the Atlanta Thrashers, no longer exists. He’s won four Stanley Cups, more than any other active player.
As much as anybody, Kunitz knows the business side of hockey. But what Pittsburgh became for him and his family … let’s just say it was way, way more than just where he happened to play games.
“I don’t take that for granted,” Kunitz said. “As hockey players, we don’t get to stay in one spot for too long. We’ve been very fortunate to be with one organization that long.
“I’ve had a lot of great teammates who have come and gone. You realize how hard it is for guys to go and have to learn a new place, but you always take those memories and relationships with you.”
Kunitz leaves to take a one-year, $2 million deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s tough,” Kunitz said. “There wasn’t a lot of conversation from the Pens to our side of it. I guess you almost knew there was a point that you might move on. We just had to put together a scenario that works for our family, if we were going to go somewhere else.
“One of the most important things for us was to find a team that had a chance to win – that had all the key ingredients – that also has that quality of life for you and your family.
“Once Tampa reached out to us, I think it fit the bill for all of those things that we wanted if we were going to move on somewhere else. It looks like a Stanley Cup is on that team’s mind.”
Before the news came out publicly, Kunitz broke it to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. It was one of the toughest things he’s had to do as a professional hockey player.
Especially realizing that Crosby has now lost Marc-Andre Fleury and Kunitz – two of his best friends – in a matter of weeks.
“It’s not easy,” Kunitz said. “He’s done so much for our career, and we’ve become such great friends outside of hockey. It’s tough. Obviously you’re not saying goodbye like you’ll never see each other again. It’s definitely tough to try to put into words how much playing with him and meeting a guy of his stature and personality, how much he’s done for my family and our career here.”
The fit for Kunitz works, the leadership he’ll bring and the physical role he’ll play for the Lightning. With Kunitz, Tampa should easily contend for the Cup.
Not that thinking about winning a fifth championship will make leaving Pittsburgh any easier.
“There will be so much to miss,” Kunitz said. “The people that we’ve met. The different teams our kids have been on with activities and those coaches or instructors. The guys on the team that we’ve been with a long time. Just seeing the staff inside the arena that you dealt with everybody for the bulk of your career. That makes it tough.
“We loved Pittsburgh, but we’re also extremely excited to have a new opportunity to try somewhere else.”