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Grand Game For a Grand (Rapids) Guy

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals

Coming into this weekend’s NHL activity, a total of 6,089 skaters have pulled a sweater over their heads and touched their blades to the ice during the National Hockey League’s 94 seasons of existence.

You’ve got to play in one game before you can play in a thousand. But nearly as many have played in exactly one NHL game (243) as have suited up for a thousand (266).

On Tuesday night against the Predators in Washington, 39-year-old Caps left wing Mike Knuble is slated to become the 267th player in league history to play in 1,000 games. For Knuble, it’s been a long time coming. When he played in his very first NHL game on March 26, 1997 for the Red Wings against the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, he was about three months shy of his 24th birthday.

“I’ve just been kind of waiting for it,” says Knuble of reaching the grand milestone. “It’s like a Christmas present almost, you just wait to unwrap it. It’s not going to be a big deal really to anybody else.

“It just signifies that you’ve had a strong career in the league and I think it should be every player’s goal when they enter this league to play in a thousand games. I think it’s a pretty lofty milestone. It just shows that you got a lot out of your career and did the best you could. It’s almost like a bragging right; a little club to try and get into, much like a 50-goal club or a thousand-point club.

“I’m just thankful to be able to stay healthy and be productive and have good teammates. All that stuff just comes together and the next thing you know you’re 39 years old and coming up on a thousand games. It’s a big thrill.”

For several years after that 1997 debut, Knuble struggled to stay in the league and to carve out a regular role for himself. Sticking around long enough to play in a thousand games seemed like a pipe dream.

Each of the 243 players whose NHL career spanned but a single game would have a lengthy list of influences who were instrumental in helping them to reach that lofty goal, even for that one night. The guys like Knuble who last well into a second decade in the league have an even longer list.

“Obviously there were a ton of influences when I played in Detroit,” recalls Knuble, “a lot of Hall of Fame type players there. Steve Yzerman was the captain. Brendan Shanahan, Slava Fetisov and that big Russian crew was there. There were some great older players, and you wanted to be just like them.

“The game is a little bit different now. There are so many young guys now and very few older guys to look up to, really. Back then, it was 80/20 the other way. You just wondered why they got to stick around and you saw some of the stuff they achieved and you thought as a young player, ‘I want to try and get some of that.’ And, ‘Will I ever be in the position that they’re in? When I get to a certain level of years in the league, will I achieve what they’ve achieved?’ They always worked hard and took care of themselves and knew how to be a pro. I think those early Detroit years were very influential as far as setting me on the right track.”

The Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 seasons in 1997, months after Knuble’s debut. He played in just nine regular season games and did not appear in the playoffs, but skated in 53 contests and three Stanley Cup playoff games in 1998 when the Wings swept the Capitals in the Cup final to take a second straight title.

Knuble’s name is etched on the Cup along with the rest of the 1997-98 luminaries. Remarkably, he now becomes the 11th member of that Cup championship team to play in 1,000 NHL games.

The list: Kris Draper, Sergei Fedorov, Knuble, Slava Kozlov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Jamie Macoun, Kirk Maltby, Larry Murphy, Bob Rouse, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman. Tomas Holmstrom is poised to become the 12th later this season.

On the eve of the following season (1998-99), the deep Detroit club dealt Knuble to the New York Rangers for a second-round draft choice.

On Broadway, Rangers coach John Muckler gave Knuble a chance to play. He skated in all 82 games, scoring 15 goals and getting a chance to play alongside boyhood idol Wayne Gretzky, then in the final season of his illustrious career.

Another Ranger of that era had a positive impact on Knuble’s career.

“A guy like Adam Graves in New York – who is one of the classiest people I’ve ever met,” starts Knuble, “and not only a classy player but a classy person – you’d see how he’d be around the net and how he made his living around the net. He was good around the net, he taught me a few drills around the net. When you’re a young player trying to find your way and figure out what you are, you just follow some of their influence and try to do what they do and try and be how they were.”

Just prior to the trade deadline in his second season (1999-00) in New York, Knuble was moved again, this time to Boston for journeyman forward Rob DiMaio. (Don’t miss Knuble’s humorous video recounting of DiMaio’s reaction to that deal ion on Monday.)

Knuble’s first two-plus seasons with the Bruins started slowly. He was in and out of the lineup, skating an average of about 10 minutes a night and getting fourth line assignments when he did play. With 18 goals and 40 points over those two-plus seasons in his first 150 games in Beantown, Knuble was a 30-year-old fringe NHLer when he finally caught the break he needed.

Then-Bruins winger Sergei Samsonov was one of the league’s top stars in those days. He was coming off his third 29-goal season in the league. Having posted 70 points while skating on Boston’s top line along with Joe Thornton and Glen Murray in 2001-02, Samsonov was firmly ensconced as a first liner with the B’s.

A painful and lingering wrist injury that eventually required surgery limited Samsonov to just eight games in 2002-03. Bruins coach Robbie Ftorek needed to find a complementary player who could keep Thornton and Murray humming along at their usual clip.

Ftorek tried the likes of Marty McInnis, Ivan Huml, Michal Grosek and others in that role while Knuble plied his fourth line role with the likes of Sean Brown and P.J. Stock.

In mid-November of that 2002-03 season, Knuble had two goals in the 13 games for which he had dressed. He had logged less than 10 minutes of ice time in six of those games, but had managed to put together a four-game scoring streak that got Ftorek’s attention.

By the end of November, Knuble’s ice time was routinely starting to approach and even exceed the 20-minute mark.

“Moving to Boston I was up and down there a little bit,” recalls Knuble.  ”The next huge factor in my career was Joe Thornton and Glen Murray. They changed my career. I was 30 years old and was maybe coming to the end of my rope in the league as far as what they were going to do with me and what I was going to be in the league, and I played with those two guys and they changed my career.”

On Feb. 14, 2003 against the Panthers in Florida, Knuble scored a goal 10 seconds after the opening puck drop. He tallied again 17 seconds later to establish an NHL record that still stands: fastest two goals from the start of a game by one players (27 seconds).

Knuble finished with a flourish in ’02-03, posting a remarkable 12 goals in Boston’s final 15 games to end up with 30 goals and 59 points on the season.

The fourth line was in the rear view mirror.

“I had a ton of success playing with [Thornton and Murray],” says Knuble. “That was eight, nine, 10 years ago now, and they got me to the second half of my career and changed who I was as a player. They enabled me to go from probably the 350- or 400-game level all the way up to a thousand. They really were a big influence and I’ll always be thankful to those two for helping me find my game and bringing me up to the next level.”

On Tuesday against Nashville, Knuble joins Thornton (1,025 NHL games and counting) and Murray (1,009 games) in the 1,000-game club.

Getting a chance to play with those two enabled Knuble to prove himself, and he has gone on to thrive for nearly a decade now. That opportunity also enabled him to leave his physical education degree from the University of Michigan for later in life.

“I was just trying to make it to the ’04 lockout there,” remembers Knuble of his mindset in those days. “That was my goal. I think I had a contract all the way up to then, and then it was going to be a little bit tough. I knew things might change.

“I was thinking, ‘Am I going to have to go to Europe? What’s going to happen?’ I had young kids, a couple of babies and I knew I had to provide for everybody. You start thinking worst-case scenario. But I stuck with it, I got a chance, I got a break playing with those guys and then my career went in a different direction. From ’97 to ’02, I was wondering how I was fitting into this league. Once I started turning a corner with those guys, I started feeling pretty comfortable after that.”

Knuble has totaled at least 21 goals in each of the last eight seasons, topping out at 34 goals and 65 points with the Flyers in 2005-06. He has played in the Olympics, in the World Championship, in the Winter Classic, and in Sweden (during the lockout).

At 39, Knuble has seen – somewhat inexplicably — mostly fourth line duty with Washington this season, but the Caps were 8-2 in the 10 games early this season when he was still skating among the team’s top six forwards. He is obviously well into the back nine of his career, but takes good care of himself physically and wants to play as long as he’s wanted.

“You have to be that way,” he declares. “I hate when people want to retire too early. You see tennis players and this and that doing it. Maybe they get burned out. Everybody gets burned out. People get burned out. I understand that. You feel like you can’t play at a high level or you’re injured. But it’s a job you never want to walk away from. You never want to walk away from playing in this league easily. You want to go out on your own terms. You want to make them burn your jersey to get you out of here. You just want to play.

“I think as you get older, you’ve got to be healthy. Injuries cause people to retire. They lose a step. They’re not the player they were; that’s always the X factor. As a professional athlete, injuries can strike at any time. Disinterest can strike, if you’re not in the right role or the right situation. But with the advances in training, guys treat their body a lot better than they probably did in the past. There are more medical advances. Surgeons are better. They put you back together a little bit better. Food is better, guys take it all seriously as far as eating and taking care of themselves.”

Does he savor these latter, successful years of his career any more than he did the early, struggling ones?

“You want to slow down and smell the roses a little bit and kind of chill or relax, and not stress out over the games or stress out over mistakes and when things happen on the ice not get worked up. But I don’t think it works like that.

“When you’re finished someday, you’re going be like ‘I should have enjoyed it more. I should have done this more, I should have enjoyed myself more.’ But you can’t. Playing and playing well is your enjoyment. Winning games is your enjoyment. It’s not the extra stuff. You don’t know when it’s going to end. But we’re all competitive. I don’t think that competitiveness ever dies. I think it’s disrespectful to your teammates if you mentally check out a little bit and start messing around and not take everything seriously. Your teammates will look at you and say, ‘What are you doing?’

“We all want to achieve on the ice, and I think if you don’t take it seriously, that’s when you’re going to get burned on the ice and you’re going to look bad. You do want to relish things, but at the end of the day we’re all competitive and we all want to do well and we all want to win. You don’t waver from that too much. But you do want to take it all in a little bit. I know what you’re saying, but it’s hard to do both. You get your enjoyment out of playing well and winning and being successful as a group. But you do sit around the locker room and talk to guys. It’s the same stuff. It’s not like you’re dying. You just go about business and you don’t talk about it too much. You don’t acknowledge it too much.”

One thing Knuble will never have trouble remembering is his first game in the league, that late-season game against Colorado nearly 15 years ago.

“I had a great first game,” exudes Kunble. “It was an unbelievable first game. And even 15 years later, I can say, ‘You remember that game?’ and people say, ‘Yeah, I remember it.’ That was my first NHL game.

“Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon [Ed: Vernon earned his 300th win in that game, and Shanahan had a Gordie Howe hat trick.] fought at center ice and there was a huge brawl. We were down 5-3 in the third and came back to win 6-5 in overtime at Joe Louis. It was the fallout from Kris Draper and Claude Lemieux. It was about a year later, like 10 months later, and they had played the week before and nothing happened.

“You can talk to anybody in Michigan where I live and they remember that game like it was yesterday. You can talk to a lot people in the hockey world and they remember that game, and you say, ‘Yeah, that was my first game.’ and they look at you like, ‘What a game to be your first!’ It was crazy. It’s an easy one to remember.”

The 1,000th one on Tuesday will be an easy one to remember, too. Congratulations to Mike Knuble on a great career, and here’s to hoping that career still has a lot of road stretched out ahead. In the words of Stephen Stills and Neil Young, “Long May You Run.”

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