High school and college football teams around the country celebrated homecoming weekends during the month of October. Head coach Dan Bylsma and forward Chris Kunitz
had to wait a couple weeks for theirs, as they return to the scene of where their respective careers took off when the Penguins face the Anaheim Ducks at 10 p.m. Tuesday night.
Bylsma spent his entire playing career on the west coast, first with the Los Angeles Kings from 1995-2000, and then with the Ducks from 2000-04. He was a member of Anaheim’s 2003 squad which lost to the New Jersey Devils in a thrilling seven-game series in the Stanley Cup Final. Bylsma established career highs with the then-Mighty Ducks when he netted eight goals and 17 points during the ’01-02 season.
“I like coming back here,” Bylsma said. “It feels good. Most of my career was spent here in California so I have a lot of good memories and met a lot of good people. My family and I love California.”
Following his playing days at the conclusion of the ’03-04 season, Bylsma stepped behind the bench as an assistant coach for the Ducks’ American Hockey League affiliate in Cincinnati before jumping to a job with the New York Islanders the next year.
Because the NHL used more of an imbalanced schedule during Bylsma’s lone season on Long Island, this is his first chance to revisit the state of California since his playing days. Bylsma felt right at home when the team arrived on Sunday.
“We went to dinner fairly close to the neighborhood where I lived,” Bylsma said. “Coming back here to ‘The Pond’ is very familiar. Four or five years is a long time (to be gone). In hockey, it’s like dog years. I see a lot of familiar faces, which is a good thing.”
Kunitz should recognize a lot more familiar faces than his coach, having only been traded from the Ducks to the Penguins along with Eric Tangradi
in exchange for Ryan Whitney on Feb. 26, 2009. Prior to coming to the Penguins Kunitz had played all but two of his 315 NHL games with Anaheim, helping lead the Ducks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2007.
“It’s fresh in your mind,” Kunitz said. “You were here for such a long time and enjoyed your time here. But it’s time to go out there. It turns into another game when the 60 minutes are going. Leading up to it, I’m sure you think about it a little more, the good times and things you had while you were here.”
This will be the first time Kunitz plays his former team. During four full seasons and parts of two others with Anaheim he tallied 81 goals and 111 assists to go with a plus-57 rating. Kunitz originally joined the Ducks as an undrafted free agent following a successful four-year career at Ferris State.
In addition to winning the Cup in ’06-07, Kunitz established career highs with 25 goals and 35 assists for 60 points during the regular season. He added six points (1G-5A) during the postseason run.
While he is happy to return to a city that was very good to him, Kunitz has important items to cross off his agenda during this trip – namely help his current employer pick up two points and tie an NHL record for most consecutive road wins (7) at the beginning of a season.
“I always have good memories from when I was in Anaheim but it’s just a part of the business,” Kunitz said. “You have to move on. It’s good to come back. Maybe see some old friends and faces. It’s just another game coming back.”