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Knuble persevered to reach 1,000-game mark

by Ben Raby

WASHINGTON -- Like most NHL players, Capitals forward Mike Knuble has a collection of memories from his NHL debut -- the opponent, his linemates and the final score to list a few. Compared to most though, Knuble's first career NHL game included a few more colorful details.

"My very first game was Detroit against Colorado," Knuble recalled last week. "Goalies were fighting and there was a huge brawl and I'm thinking ‘I thought I just left the American [Hockey] League.' It was just bonkers."

The March 26, 1997 meeting between the Red Wings and Avalanche -- at the peak of their late '90s rivalry -- featured nine fights, including a bout between goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon.

Detroit won 6-5 in overtime, securing Vernon's 300th career win. Among those on the ice that night: future Hall-of-Fame members Steve Yzerman, Larry Murphy, Igor Larionov and Roy and others likely to someday join them in Toronto in Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom.

Mike Knuble
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 9
SOG: 49 | +/-: -7
Scotty Bowman's roster also included a wide-eyed 24-year-old rookie whose debut became nothing more than a footnote after Darren McCarty netted the overtime winner.

"We were down 5-3 in that game and we win in overtime," Knuble said. "Looking back after [Detroit] won the [1997] Stanley Cup -- they felt like that was the game that propelled them."

Knuble was still two seasons away from becoming an everyday NHL player, but that wild night at Joe Louis Arena was also the springboard to a career that is about to reach a historic mark. When the Capitals play host the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, Knuble will become the 269th player in NHL history to have skated in at least 1,000 career games.

Not bad for a guy who did not play a full NHL season until he was 26, and whose goal was once to reach the work stoppage in 2004 with 400 games just to assure himself of a better pension.

"It's something I've been looking forward to for the last couple of years," Knuble said of reaching the milestone. "If you get up there in the high [800s] you start to think it's possible. … You have to stay healthy, have good fortune and be in the right situation."

Knuble has been in the "right situation" for the better part of the last decade, going against conventional wisdom while seeing his career skyrocket after turning 30.

At 39 years and five months, Knuble will become the second oldest player to reach 1,000 games (behind only Grant Ledyard), and after notching 50 goals while in his twenties, the power forward has scored 221 times in his thirties.


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"It was like night and day," Knuble said. "I've lived two different careers through all this."

Through it all, Knuble has played alongside the likes of Yzerman, Shanahan and Lidstrom in Detroit, Wayne Gretzky and Adam Graves in New York (Knuble credits Graves for teaching him to go to the net -- where the majority of his 271 goals have been scored), Forsberg in Philadelphia and Alex Ovechkin in Washington.

But for all the players that Knuble has crossed paths with, few have had the impact that Joe Thornton and Glen Murray did in Boston.

"They changed my career," Knuble said of his linemates during the 2002-03 season.

With sniper Sergei Samsonov sidelined for the year after just eight games, coach Robbie Ftorek summoned Knuble for top-line duty. The Michigan native delivered with 30 goals and 59 points.

"It was just a magic year and I'm reminded of it every summer," said Knuble who won a Jeep that year that he continues to drive every offseason.

The Jeep was Knuble's prize for winning Boston's "7th Player Award," given annually to the player who goes above and beyond the call of duty and exceeds fans' expectations. Nine years later it appears that description still applies to the man teammates know as "Knubs."

"There's a reason the guy is going to play 1,000 games," Caps teammate Brooks Laich said. "It's because he's a true professional.

"There are so many young guys on this team, and he has to shoulder the whole load of being the main veteran guy. But Mike's such a good teammate in that aspect. … If he's not playing and other guys are getting minutes that he thinks he deserves, he still keeps his mouth shut."

After spending his first two years in Washington skating primarily alongside Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Knuble has spent the better part of 2011-12 skating on the Caps' fourth line.

As a result, Knuble's streak of eight straight 20-goal seasons is in danger of ending. The durable Knuble has played all 31 games this year but has just 3 goals and 9 points.

Knuble's diminished role this season begs the question whether he fits into the Caps long-term plans. He is set to become a free agent July 1 and he'll turn 40 three days later. After starting his NHL career later than most, Knuble sounds prepared to delay his retirement as well.

"I think as long as my body feels good, it has to be the right situation for everybody," Knuble said. "I'm still physically feeling good and mentally still interested in playing. You never want to make statements one way or another, but I'd be very interested in playing again."
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