Thursday, February 14, 2019

Chris Kunitz Hits the 1000 Game Mark

 When Chris Kunitz signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 1, he joined a team that already had its share of Stanley Cup winners.

But Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said the 39-year-old forward, who has won the Cup four times (with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, 2016 and 2017), brought a different voice and perspective that was immediately welcomed.

"It's nice to have someone like that, that you can talk to about their different experiences, and not just for us but for the young guys, as well," Kane said. "There's a lot of talk about the success the Blackhawks have had in the past, but he's won four Stanley Cups, none of them with the Blackhawks. He knows what it takes to win, so it's good to lean on someone like that."

 Kunitz will play in his 1,000th NHL game when the Blackhawks host the New Jersey Devils at United Center on Thursday.  He has had a tremendous career, with 613 points (264 goals, 349 assists) in 999 NHL games with the Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Blackhawks.

"Obviously, I've had a lot of great teammates and coaches and great opportunities to be part of this League for so long, so those are the first things that cross your mind," said Kunitz, who has four points (one goal, three assists) in 33 games with Chicago. "Just how your career evolves and all the people you've come across, how your own family gets to be part of different things. I'm very fortunate to be in this League a long time and have some successful years that make those memories a lot more vivid.

"So it's just creating those relationships, but also being part of some special organizations and people who gave you opportunities to make a life-long dream of doing a kid's job."

Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton called Kunitz "a great person, a great teammate."

"His career has been fantastic, and I think he's been playing pretty well lately, giving us professional shifts," Colliton said. "He does a lot of little things away from the puck. There's a reason why he's had so much success as a player and played on championship teams over and over again. To have that presence on the team, certainly we have a few guys like that, but the more the merrier."

Kunitz was an undrafted free agent out of Ferris State when the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim signed him in 2003. On teams that included forward Teemu Selanne and defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, each now in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Kunitz found his niche as a net-front presence.

"Once you get [to the NHL], you realize you have to do something to create a different outcome in the game and when you can do that, someone will rely upon you and put you out there consistently," he said. "For me, it worked to go to the net front on the power play and play with some good players.

"I didn't have to beat too many people at skill, I just had to get to the right spot for a lot of those guys."

On the way to scoring 192 points (81 goals, 111 assists) in 397 games with the Ducks, Kunitz also took leadership aspects from some of those veterans.

"Learning from [Selanne] and seeing how much he worked at his craft and how much he enjoyed the game every single day, even into his later years, the calm presence that [Niedermayer] always brought and the fieriness of [defenseman] Chris Pronger," Kunitz said. "A lot of great players that you've come across, you just kind of take bits and pieces of their energy, try to mold that into yourself, try to keep doing it every day as long as you can."

When the Ducks traded Kunitz and center Eric Tangradi to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman Ryan Whitney on Feb. 26, 2009, Kunitz bolstered Pittsburgh's secondary scoring. He had 388 points (169 goals, 219 assists) in 569 games with Pittsburgh, setting NHL career highs in points (68) and goals (35) in 2013-14. He usually played on a line with center Sidney Crosby, who said Kunitz brought the same reliable game every night.

"He played on both sides of the puck really well," Crosby said. "Competed offensively, but then he could block a shot with a big play defensively as well. He scored timely goals and he read the play well. I mean, I think he's a guy that, over the years, we talked a lot in practice and in games. It felt like we were always able to adjust and that's something that, to his credit too, he's able to find different ways to be productive."

Penguins goalie Matt Murray compared Kunitz to center Matt Cullen, who also won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. Murray said each player had a big impact on him.

"As a young guy, you can be pretty apprehensive coming into a league with such good players and playing with grown men for the first time. They really helped me settle in, and I know they did for a lot of the young guys," the 24-year-old said. "So, I know [Kunitz] was a big factor in obviously us winning the Cup. He's been through it all, he's seen a lot of different scenarios. I mean, he has four Cups, right? So, four Cups speaks for itself."

Kunitz signed a one-year contract with the Lightning on July 1, 2017, and had 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 82 games with Tampa Bay last season before joining the Blackhawks.

Kunitz doesn't know how much longer he'll play. With that in mind, he has been more reflective lately, and he has a tremendous career on which to look back.

"You remember a lot of the different people you've come across, look at some of the rosters of players who had those little moments, who took you out to dinners in your first days," Kunitz said. "You take that into perspective now and how much it means at the moment to be part of something bigger than just being in the League."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He's a heckuva player with multiple Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold medal. Guy doesn't get a lot of Regina attention, for being one of the best to ever come from there.