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THE VERDICT: No expiration date on character

Team Historian Bob Verdi writes about Chris Kunitz, who will play his 1,000th NHL game on Thursday against the Devils

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

Chris Kunitz, 39, knows that the end of his stellar career is near, but exactly where the finish line might be suddenly requires some thought.

For long stretches this winter, it surely seemed that the Blackhawks would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs. They still aren't there, but with a seven-game winning streak, they've got their noses pressed against the glass.

"Could we be dangerous?" he said. "We have what it takes, I think. We have depth. We have goalkeeping that stole us a few points when things weren't going so well. And we're growing our game as we go along."

Obviously, the Blackhawks possess a number of veterans who know what it takes, Kunitz being a recent addition to that honor roll. He's earned four Stanley Cup rings, all tucked away safely, as are memories and friendships for a lifetime.

When the Blackhawks signed Kunitz to a one-year contract as a free agent last summer, they knew what they were getting. When Jeremy Colliton took over as head coach in early November, he caught on quickly.

"Great person, great teammate," said Colliton. "Gives us professional shifts."

Most often, they are only cameo appearances, maybe nine or ten for sparse minutes. That too has necessitated a revision in Kunitz' mindset, but you never know. In 2014, the Blackhawks hired grizzled warhorse Brad Richards, and he contributed significantly to a Stanley Cup in the spring of 2015.

"I wish I could be giving more," said Kunitz. "But I've learned my place."

Kunitz' place this week is front and center because his next game, on Thursday at home versus the New Jersey Devils, shall be his 1,000th in the National Hockey League - not bad for an undrafted lad who graduated from Ferris State with a marketing degree and a superior work ethic. Kunitz has been around so long that he played two games with the Atlanta Thrashers. He's also played 178 playoff games, the pedigree of a winner.

Kunitz skated beside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, scored regularly - 35 in 2013-14 - and when he returned there with the Blackhawks last month, he was accorded a proper ovation attached to the Penguins' 10th reunion of their 2009 Cup team. Kunitz started, a classy touch by Colliton, and Kunitz potted a goal as the Blackhawks recorded their 10th straight victory over the Penguins.

"Common thread among great organizations," he said. "Here in Chicago, the owner and the management give us every chance to succeed. They want to win the Stanley Cup, not just make the playoffs. As players, you sense that message, and you become a family. You do whatever it takes, whether it's the stars like Patrick Kane scoring goals or other guys blocking shots.

"I think, earlier in this season, maybe we were a little fragile. But of late, we're doing more of the right things. Unselfish, accountable. We were down 2-1 in Edmonton, but we kept at it and got five in the third period. We got outplayed a bit here against Vancouver, but found a way to win. Extra gear, even if you have to take it to the 61st minute."

At Ferris State, Kunitz met Maureen, his future wife. She's from Schaumburg. He won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, then three more with the Penguins. Chris and Maureen have brought the Cup here for a couple of their party days. Now with three children, they've settled in Chicago, where they will stay when Chris retires.

"This is a great city," he said. "And now we're around Maureen's extended family, which makes it even more enjoyable. The kids are around their cousins and grandparents. They can just spend time and watch them play their games. It's nice to have everybody around."

The Blackhawks would tell you the same about Chris Kunitz. He could have come to town, flashed his rings, his Olympic gold medal with Team Canada in 2014, and strutted his stuff. Upon being frequently delegated as a healthy scratch, he could have gone grumpy. Instead he carried himself with dignity. He's not loud in the locker room because he doesn't have to be. And if he's only going to take a few shifts every night, they're going to be good shifts. Professional shifts.

"Playing 1,000 games, it's certainly not something you think about when you're starting out," said Kunitz. "But I've been fortunate to play with great organizations and great players. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Kane and Jonathan Toews here. Among others. They have that drive. They just think the game better than everybody else. They slow it down, then process the information. They don't stop in the summer and think, well, what I've done is good enough."

This summer, it will probably be over and out for Chris Kunitz. But there is no expiration date on character.

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