PITTSBURGH -- Chris Kunitz has become a beloved member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has helped them win the Stanley Cup twice. He has helped Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each win the Hart Trophy as most valuable player and Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion.
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium paraded seven penguins into Heinz Field before the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. Each penguin was named for a Penguin. Of course, one was named Kunitz.
But Kunitz didn't know that was going to happen eight years ago. All he knew was he had been traded for the first time in his NHL career.
"I mean, when you say shocked, it's an understatement for how much your world crumbles," Kunitz said.
This is something to keep in mind as the NHL Trade Deadline approaches March 1 at 3 p.m. ET. As general managers work the phones, analysts opine and speculate, and fans hope their teams improve, players and families stress.
Once an undrafted free agent out of Ferris State who had spent two years in the minors and been claimed on waivers twice, Kunitz had shown he could score in the League, proven he could play on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and helped the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup in 2007. He had signed a four-year contract extension. He thought he would be in Anaheim for a long time.
But on Feb. 26, 2009, six days before the trade deadline, the Ducks sent Kunitz and forward Eric Tangradi to the Penguins for defenseman Ryan Whitney.
There was the hockey angle. Kunitz was going from one disappointing team to another. The Ducks were 10th in the Western Conference two years after winning the Cup; the Penguins were 10th in the East a year after going to the Final. He was going from a team he called "close-knit" to the unknown.
"It was kind of a shot to the ego, thinking a reason why they got rid of you is they thought the team was better," Kunitz said. "But the other side of it was, they were trying to improve their team and had to give something up."
Then there was the family angle. It was Kunitz's wife's birthday. She was 33 or 34 weeks pregnant with their first child. They had a house and a hospital, and now they had to find a new house and a new hospital hundreds of miles away.
"It kind of turned your life upside down," Kunitz said. "But … that's how awesome the hockey world is. You can move across the country. You can have multiple things on your mind. … Then you just jump onto a team, and there's guys in the locker room and in management that support you and help you along. It's not that much different from the other team. It's just that you're not as familiar or close with everybody."
Kunitz had a goal and an assist less than 10 minutes into his first game with the Penguins, a 5-4 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center. Soon he was on a line with Crosby and Bill Guerin, and they clicked. The Penguins went on to win the Cup that year.
"It wasn't ever easy, but it was easier to come to a team and management and people like this and have the success we did," Kunitz said. "It kind of numbed all that pain that you were going through."
Kunitz went on to excel with Crosby and Malkin, and the Penguins went on to win the Cup again last year. Meanwhile, Kunitz and his wife, Maureen, went on to have three children in Pittsburgh: Zach, 7 1/2; Payton, 5 1/2; and Aubrey, 3. It feels like home.
As he has aged, Kunitz's ice time and production have declined. He's 37 now. His hands aren't what they once were. He has spent time as a fourth-liner and penalty-killer this season, though he still has the speed, smarts and heart to move back up in the lineup when needed because of injuries. He scored the goal that gave Crosby his 1,000th NHL point on Feb. 16 and skated with Malkin and Phil Kessel at Heinz Field on Saturday.
"No one ever would have said, 'You're a first-line player,'" Kunitz said. "But I've been fortunate enough to play in that role for a long time, and hopefully the willingness to move up and down the lineup is something you can take farther in your career. When things aren't going good or as smooth, or your speed dips or your hands dip or something, you can still go out and contribute to the team."
Kunitz is in the final season of his contract. It is uncertain whether the Penguins will bring him back, even though they love him, because of their salary-cap situation and the rise of younger players.
"Players obviously want to play as long as they can," Kunitz said. "You never know. You've been fortunate enough to be in one situation and one place for a long time and have had a lot of success. My kids have been raised here and born here. But the other side is, you don't usually get to be in one place this long for most guys. I think you always look on both sides of it. I think the future will take care of itself."