"You don't have to sell Michigan to a Michigan kid," said the Flyers' Mike Knuble
about his lifelong affinity for the Michigan Wolverines.
Or to the kid of a Michigan kid.
"My son already says, 'When I grow up, I'm going to Michigan. I hope they have a spot for me.' So he thinks he's going to Michigan and playing in the NHL, too," said Knuble of his 8-year-old son, Cam.
The Flyers' durable and imposing right wing (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), now in his 12th NHL season -- which includes stints with the Red Wings, Rangers, Bruins and Flyers -- relishes his father-and-son conversations.
"I grew up in Grand Rapids (Mich.), playing AA hockey," said Knuble about his roots -- and his major loss at a young age. "When I was 15, I was thinking of going to Detroit and playing in (development programs). But my father died unexpectedly; that kind of made me stay. So I played Michigan high school hockey. Maybe that was not the best breeding ground for NHL players, but I made the best of it. At 18, I played juniors in Kalamazoo.
"Then I went to Michigan. My goal was to get somewhere in college. I didn't even visit. I was considering Western Michigan at the time and Ferris State. Things happened so quickly and I made a decision -- the right one."
Under legendary coach Red Berenson
, Knuble put up four seasons of consistent growth on the front end of one of the NCAA's most impressive team records: Michigan's current 18-year-and-counting run of NCAA Tournament appearances that began in 1991.
Knuble attributes his success to two major factors.
"I learned how to play the game in college," he said matter-of-factly. "You always had the chance to get better."
"Michigan was kind of the laughingstock at one time," said Knuble, "but Red came (in 1984) and built it up. Took him five, six, seven years, but Red earned respect and that's the big thing. Players know he's a guy that has walked the walk. He'll talk about becoming a better person, but he's done things in his life to make himself a better person. At that time, players who worked between seasons were pretty content to cut lumber and work in factories. But Red went back (to Michigan) and got a Master's degree in the summers."
"When Mike came to us," said Berenson, "he was a good-sized kid who skated pretty well. But by the time he left, he was a dominant player and a leader on our team -- a force on the ice every night. He was ready for the next step. I don't think anybody at Michigan is surprised to see him do well at the (NHL) level because of the type of kid he is."
Knuble showed steady improvement during his four seasons, from 1991-95, posting 15, 42, 58 and 60 points, respectively.
"The success we had is part of attracting good players," said Knuble. "There were a lot who had the talent and the wheels to become good players.
"My first year I came in, there was Denny Felsner
. He had 100 points his last year. Chris Tamer
was a teammate who went on to have good years at Pittsburgh. The second two years I played with Brendan Morrison
(Hobey Baker winner in 1997). I was a senior when Marty Turco
came. They were all part of my success there."
Turco led Michigan to a national title in 1996, the year after Knuble graduated, and then another in 1998. But Knuble's teams set the table for Michigan to achieve the current NCAA record of nine national titles.
"We were always good enough to play in the national tournament and lucky to be playing late into March," said Knuble.
Unfortunately, they usually were unlucky in April.
The Wolverines made three Frozen Four appearances during Knuble's four seasons, falling short of a first national championship since 1964.
"We lost in the semifinals three times -- a few in OT," reflected Knuble. "I think it was triple OT my senior year, to Maine."
"I learned how to play the game in college. You always had the chance to get better."
-- Mike Knuble
That gut-wrenching 4-3 loss in triple overtime to the Black Bears in '95 would be Knuble's final college game.
"I stayed all four years because there was pressure then to stay," said Knuble. "I had a lot of buddies in Ann Arbor. Today the pressure is to push maybe too much to leave early with the CBA. Plus I was drafted by Detroit, so my goal was to be ready and not spend too long at Adirondack (American Hockey League)."
Knuble played the better part of the next three seasons with Adirondack, but got into 53 regular-season and three playoff games during the run to the 1998 Stanley Cup, which earned him having his name inscribed on the trophy.
Knuble's best pro season came in 2005-06, when he posted 34 goals and 65 points with the Flyers. In 790 games, he has 206 goals and 209 assists.
His home state of Michigan and its university, however, still loom largest in Knuble's big picture down the road.
"I look forward to bringing my son to alumni events," he said. "And the degree is something to be proud of, that you accomplished in your career. I'm always going to live in Michigan. I attend alumni stuff in the summer -- it's a great community."