Pittsburgh Penguins unsung hero: Chris Kunitz

Let's take a moment and appreciate what Chris Kunitz has done for the Pittsburgh Penguins

There have been five members of the Pittsburgh Penguins that have won three Stanley Cups as an active player. We all know about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. First ballot Hall of Famers and no brainers to see their jersey hanging beside Mario Lemieux’s in the rafters of PPG Paints Arena the moment they retire.

Kris Letang has his rightful place in Penguins’ history as he has pushed through a string of unfathomable injuries, plays a daring style of hockey and scored a Stanley Cup winning goal against San Jose not too long ago. He may also have his name in the Hall of Fame one day.

Then there is Marc-Andre Fleury who although he has moved on from the Pittsburgh Penguins, will always remain a Penguin at heart. He was drafted by Pittsburgh, devoted everything to Pittsburgh and quite honestly, will probably come back eventually. People were calling for his jersey to be retired the moment he was selected by Vegas.

He’s another person who will probably make his way into the Hall of Fame. That takes care of four of the Pittsburgh five. That fifth member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has won all three Stanley Cups that the Crosby era has produced, is Chris Kunitz.

It is okay to admit that you don’t really know much about this guy. To most, even some die-hard Penguins fans, he has just always been someone who has been there. Never flashy, never making a scene, not once rocking the boat. Noted as being a great teammate, scoring important goals, and of course being Sidney Crosby’s linemate.

We don’t know him as well as the other four because quite frankly, he doesn’t have the skill of Sidney Crosby, and he isn’t the captivating unknown that is Malkin. He isn’t as daring and emotional as Letang, and he doesn’t have that kid like feel and flashy smile that makes everyone love Fleury.

It is ok to not know him, but it is time people realize how incredible he is.

Chris Kunitz has had a wildly successful career.

SJHL and College

By the standard of the NHL development system, he should never have even played a game in the NHL. He was not drafted. I know it sounds crazy, but a man who is the only active player to win four Stanley Cups wasn’t even looked at in the draft. He was just another one of thousands of hockey players playing in Saskatchewan, Canada.

A province that is so ingrained with hockey that it is hard to have a conversation that doesn’t involve Canada’s greatest game, or the Saskatchewan Roughriders, of course.

He played for the Melville Millionaires. So you know, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is a highly competitive league that produces many a solid hockey player, including Jaden Schwartz, who played for the Notre Dame Hounds.

Kunitz, like many from the SJHL, was recruited to play for a college team in the states. For players coming out of the SJHL or the SJ for short, this is the goal, to get your education paid for. Now, I don’t know Kunitz, but I am sure that committing to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, was exciting and gave him chance to play hockey.

But, it was also a decision filled with some relief that hockey would be able to provide him an education. It is a huge accomplishment to play hockey for a NCAA school, and Kunitz the moment he graduated could have considered himself a successful hockey player.

In his time at Ferris State, he was a Finalist for the Hobby Baker award, received a degree in marketing and business, and met his wife. He was headed for a successful life no matter what path he chose, but when you’re as talented as Kunitz is and was, it is hard not to fight for that hockey dream.

A really good guy

Let’s stop here for a second and understand the drive that this man has. He was looked over time and time again. He has always had a calmness about him that makes everyone around him truly believe that everything is going to be okay. To have that degree of belief in yourself is quite inspiring, to be honest.

A kid from Regina, Saskatchewan, with a dream.

We hear these stories all the time, but the way that Kunitz has gone about his life, the way he has given way more than he will ever be able to receive is hard to put into words. He is the kind of guy who will stop and sign for anyone and everyone… and not tell a soul.

He purposefully had a small Stanley Cup celebration in Regina when the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, so that high profile Regina resident, Ryan Getzlaf, could take the spotlight. I am sure he and his family is the core of the dynamic of any team they play for.

When you think of Chris Kunitz you think of family. You think of a quiet soul who never once felt that he was owed anything, and earned absolutely everything. As most would say, just a good Saskatchewan boy.

He signed as an un-drafted free agent in 2003 with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Like most NHL players he was sent down here and there before solidifying himself as an NHL player. Again, quietly effective. In 2007, somehow that guy who just fought and clawed his way through the ranks was on the ice when the Ducks won the Cup.

No one knew where this guy came from, yet no one really questioned him or wondered, but the respect level for this man is undeniable. The next year he was a made an alternate Captain. Again, wasn’t a flashy announcement or covered by Sportsnet or TSN, but there is a quiet confidence about Kunitz no matter where he was or where he was going.

You do not play a nearly 15-year career on just two teams by a fluke. You are able to stay in one spot because you are wanted and good enough to stay.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ career

In 2009 Kunitz was traded to Pittsburgh for Ryan Whitney and Eric Tangradi. For Pittsburgh fans, ridding themselves of Ryan Whitney seemed unbearable at the time. He was one of Sid’s friends, a part of the core group and at the time it was a lot to handle. Wow, did Pittsburgh get lucky with this trade?

Neither Whitney nor Tangradi has stable NHL careers at the moment. Kunitz, on the other hand, has won three more Stanley Cups, an Olympic Gold Medal, and did I mention he scored the Game 7 double-overtime goal to send the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup final this year?

Kunitz and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a match made in heaven. Pittsburgh needed and needs players that are okay with being out of the limelight, even if they deserve the limelight. They need people who are fine that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are getting the attention.

The Pittsburgh Penguins need, maybe more than any team in the league, because of their status, really good people.

They need people who will do everything in their power to help this team win, knowing full well that outside of the dressing room, no one will notice.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and every team in the league should look at Kunitz, and realize how important he was… and is to the Penguins. At this point, I think he is worthy of us acknowledging what he has meant to the organization as a whole.

Crosby connection

We haven’t even talked about what he has meant to Sidney Crosby. Kunitz was his guy. Kunitz scored the goal that was assisted by Crosby that counted as Crosby’s 1000th point. Crosby was the first person to jump into Kunitz’s arms when Kunitz scored in the Gold Medal game in Sochi. Crosby is the first to compliment Kunitz in any way that he can.

This bond has helped make Crosby the best he can be. Crosby is the best grinder the NHL has ever seen, and Kunitz worked well with that.

Kunitz was the perfect person to play with Sidney Crosby.

He isn’t as flashy as “Sid and the Kids”, and he didn’t put up record-breaking numbers, but he, without fail, night after night… was there. Kunitz has made a huge difference to Sidney Crosby, and no one should ever forget that.

We could dissect his play and his mistreatment by the Canadian media during the Olympics, but what is the point? Chris Kunitz has, like so many Pittsburgh Penguins players, taught us that it is not about how many points you have, but it does matter when you get your points.

Chris Kunitz has blocked shots, scored goals and factored into history defining moments for the Pittsburgh Penguins for nearly a decade.

He, much like the other four decorated Penguins, have seen others come and go, faced hardships and challenges, and eventually came together for the betterment of the team.

This core of five has changed already this summer, with Fleury headed to Vegas, but this group will forever be connected, and Kunitz has factored into these Cups, much like the others.

Final thoughts

When Chris Kunitz lifted the Cup in San Jose last June, you could hear him say something, he said, “It’s a family now.” This statement embodies who Chris Kunitz is. Just like Marc-Andre Fleury, it was and never will be, about him as an individual. It will always be about the team. Just like Kris Letang, he pushed through injuries that no one knew about till much later. Just like Evgeni Malkin, he does not want or need the full spotlight to perform. And just like Sidney Crosby, he is the master of big games and stepping up when it counts.

Chris Kunitz was not supposed to be in the NHL. Chris Kunitz, the moment he won the Cup, for the fourth time, this June, all he wanted to do was find his family. Like so many of these Pittsburgh Penguins who have grown up together, he came to Pittsburgh as a man with a supportive wife by his side, and has grown up and raised a family in Pittsburgh. Chris Kunitz has every right to be walking around with an ‘I told you so’ attitude, but he never has.

Chris Kunitz might have played his last game as a Penguin, or maybe not, but I am sure it won’t make headline news either way. I am sure it will make headline news in the dressing room though, where it matters. This Penguins team would miss Kunitz just as much as they will miss their beloved Flower. Chris Kunitz is a quality hockey player and above quality human being.

If this is it for Kunitz in Pittsburgh, he won’t get the standing ovation and emotional welcome that Fleury will get in his return. Kunitz won’t have people chanting his name and lining up 12 hours in advance to say goodbye to him, like they did for Flower. However, Chris Kunitz has quietly and so respectfully embodied what so many people should try to be.

Chris Kunitz is not a Hall of Famer, he isn’t Crosby, Malkin, Fleury or Letang, but make no mistake, there would not be three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh without Chris Kunitz. Kunitz is the ultimate unsung hero that every team needs. Pittsburgh just got so lucky that he was willing to play the part and change the city with his kindness, work ethic, and passion, just like the others.

It is difficult not to talk about the others when talking about Kunitz, but Kunitz has been so wildly successful without anyone knowing it, I hope he sees it as an honour to be placed with the names listed above. It is not an insult or a way to push him under the rug, but rather a way to pull him to the forefront. Not everyone gets to be placed in such high regards in Pittsburgh Penguins history, Kunitz is in that realm.

All in all, we have learned that, in his own way, Chris Kunitz is the hero we should all aim to be.

I hope Chris Kunitz gets to play where he wants to next year, in saying… if it is not in Pittsburgh you will be missed.

So just in case,

Thank you, Mr. Kunitz, it has been an honour to see you wear the Black and Gold; you make Pittsburgh fans so proud.

What do you think of Chris Kunitz and his legacy in Pittsburgh? Let us know below in the comment section.

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