Kunitz reflects after announcing retirementby Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter
Back in 1998, Chris Kunitz was eligible for that summer's NHL draft. But it wasn't on his radar, because he wasn't on anyone's radar.
"There was no draft watch party," he recalled with a laugh. "I was playing Tier-II junior hockey in Saskatchewan and I was probably just having a job in the summer working. I only just recently figured out what year I would have been drafted if that season came to be because I had a later September birthday."
After playing four years at Ferris State University and earning his marketing degree so that he would have an education to fall back on if hockey didn't work out, Kunitz eventually earned a free-agent contract with the Anaheim Ducks.
And while the winger eventually went on to have an incredible 15-year NHL career - highlighted by four Stanley Cups (Anaheim, 2007; Pittsburgh, 2009, '16 and '17) and an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada - it took him a while to find his niche. So when reflecting back on his career after announcing his retirement on Tuesday, Kunitz feels that his perseverance, dedication and work ethic were the keys to his success.
"It helped me look at every day (with the approach) of going out there and trying to work and create a job for yourself, just trying to earn a jersey to put on every single day," he said. "With that being said, I found a unique role and got put in some great situations and made the most of it."
Especially here in Pittsburgh, where Kunitz spent the majority of his career - recording 388 points (169G-219A) in 569 career games over eight-plus seasons from 2009-17 and cementing himself as one of the top players in franchise history.
Kunitz built a reputation as a player who thrived alongside elite talents like Evgeni Malkin and of course, Sidney Crosby. Kunitz's consistent, straight-line style that saw him get in on the forecheck, retrieve pucks and get to the net allowed him to click with the Penguins captain for some incredible stretches.
"I think it was just the understanding that he's a person that wants to speed through the middle of the ice and wants the puck," Kunitz said. "I always found it easier to give it to a really good center man who wants the puck than to carry it myself. … I didn't have to change my game when I got to go play with him. Obviously tried to make the most of it."
In Pittsburgh, Kunitz found plenty of success on the ice, but he'll also look back fondly on the life he and his wife Maureen built for their family off the ice over the years, with all three of their children - Zach, Payton and Aubrey - being born here.
"Me and my wife understood how much the Pittsburgh community meant to us, with all three kids being born there and building those friendships outside of the hockey team," he said. "Usually you go to a team and that's all you have, but when you're in a place for so long you build up those friendships with neighbors and people from the area and your kids' activities.
"Even though it wasn't home for (myself or Maureen), it felt like home for a long time. I think that was something that always stuck with us, was the way the people always treated us in the community or at the grocery store. They were always very respectful of me and my family and we really enjoyed being there and being part of the Pittsburgh community, not only just being a Pittsburgh Penguin."
Kunitz will now transition into the front office with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he spent the final season of his NHL career. The 39-year-old will join their hockey operations department as player development adviser, assisting with the Blackhawks coaching staff as well as the coaching staff with Chicago's American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.
"We like the Chicago area with my wife being from here. We thought that this would be a great way to transition into a different phase of life with us still wanting to be at home with the kids and not working full-time, things like that," Kunitz said. "We found a way to be able to find a position to make that work and hopefully it will work for both sides."