Years ago, Chris Kunitz
wasn’t even being scouted to play major junior hockey.
That would have been the traditional step for him and it’s what he wanted to do – except there was a lack of interest in the Regina, Saskatchewan native. So he ended up playing Junior A (also known as Tier II) hockey for the Melville Millionaires of his hometown Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, where he again was not scouted – this time by NHL teams – and went undrafted.
After two seasons with Melville, Kunitz decided to play college hockey at Ferris State University so that he would have an education to fall back on if collegiate hockey ended up being the highest level he reached.
However, he finally got people’s attention after a tremendous senior season – where he scored 79 points, was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award as the best college hockey player and led the Bulldogs to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. And that earned him a free-agent contract with the Anaheim Ducks.
Though his adversity didn’t end there – he was placed on waivers twice in the first month of his full NHL season and was later traded to Pittsburgh two seasons after winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim – Kunitz continued to work through it all and prove all of the doubters wrong with what he has been able to do in his NHL career. And now, over 10 years later, he has earned the right to represent Canada at the Olympics for the first time in his hockey career.
"It's a really good story, to be honest," Penguins and Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma said. "A guy comes out of nowhere a long time ago and keeps going, keeps playing well, has played great and I think rightfully so earned a spot on that team."
Kunitz received a call Tuesday morning from Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe – part of Team Canada’s management group – letting him know that he was going to Sochi prior to the press conference scheduled for 11 a.m. Though it was early enough to be a wakeup call, Kunitz admitted he was already awake just like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Probably a little less sleep than I wanted last night with the anticipation and excitement,” he said. “I guess it all paid off and it was obviously great news to share with my family. My wife (was the first person I called). I got to talk to the kids really quick and they were obviously really excited; then I got to talk to my parents because they’re in Pittsburgh too, so it was a really nice and special moment.
“One of the best surprises ever. It’s been a lot of fun. ... It was obviously a special moment this morning and a lot of great congratulations from teammates and friends for making the team."
His linemate Sidney Crosby certainly enjoyed seeing Kunitz process the news.
“Really happy (for him),” Crosby said. “He’s worked hard and he’s done a lot of things to earn the right to play on the team. When you’re able to kind of go through those things or share those experiences with teammates, especially at this level, (it’s awesome). Making the Canadian Olympic team, it’s important to every guy – but to see it up close on a teammate, a linemate, it’s pretty neat. So I’m definitely happy for him.”
Making any Olympic team – especially Canada’s – for the first time is tremendous for any player. But considering Kunitz’s situation and age of 34, it’s even sweeter knowing that this was probably his last chance to go.
“Being able to take from the talent pool that they have, being selected to go I think is such an honor,” he said. “With it only happening every four years and maybe not knowing if it’s going to come again I guess it's probably one of those things that make it such a special honor. And that being said, you’ve still got to go out and contribute and produce once you get there.”
That shouldn’t be a problem, as he has contributing and producing at an incredibly consistent pace the last two seasons for the Penguins.
Right now, Kunitz’s 23 goals are tied with Crosby for fourth in the NHL and second most among all Canadian players behind only Chicago’s Patrick Sharp (25 goals). Kunitz ranks second in the NHL with 11 power-play tallies and a plus-22 rating (tied), and overall, his 47 points rank seventh.
“We like the things he brings, we like the tenacity,” Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said. “He's having a tremendous year, you can't deny that. He had a great year last year. He's a great net-front guy on the power play, he does a lot of really good things."