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Late Bloomer Blossoms

by Deborah Francisco / Pittsburgh Penguins
This article originally apeared in the March 17 issue of Ice TIME, the official game program of the Pittsburgh Penguins. If you would like to purchse this issue or any back issues please click here.

Penguins forward Chris Kunitz has played remarkable since being acquired by the Penguins on Feb. 26. In 11 games with Pittsburgh, Kunitz has netted six goals and seven assists for 13 points. What’s more, the Penguins are 9-0-2 since his arrival.

The way Kunitz drives to the net, plays physical and produces points, you would never guess that he was once a long shot to make it in the NHL.

“I was kind of a late bloomer,” Kunitz admitted. “It wasn’t until my junior or senior year of college that I kind of realized that professional hockey was something that might be possible.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound winger never even took part in an NHL Entry Draft, but instead played four years of college hockey with Ferris State in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association where he honed his skills.

“I’ve seen Kunitz play since he’s been in college,” Penguins General Manager Ray Shero said. “I’ve always appreciated and liked the way he played and I’ve always thought, I would like to get one of those guys myself.”

A scholarship at Ferris State allowed the Regina, Saskatchewan native to improve his play and earn a degree in marketing and business.

“I kind of took a different route with going to college,” Kunitz recalled. “I looked at it as going to get an education rather than a step to go play professional hockey or something.”

Kunitz spent his time at Ferris State developing his gritty style of play, which eventually turned some heads in the NHL. After college he signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent in 2003.

“I peeked when I was 22, 23 years old instead of some of the guys who are real good at 18 or 19,” Kunitz said. “It’s just a different avenue but I went and got a degree so it was the education factor that made me take that step.”

Without taking that step to collegiate hockey, it’s possible that Kunitz might never have realized his NHL potential.

“If I wouldn’t have gone to college, I’m not even sure what I would have been doing,” Kunitz said. “I probably would have gone to a technical school back in Canada, but it was nice to get that scholarship, get an education and then play hockey. And then my avenues opened up after that.”

Kunitz plays a style of hockey that any team can appreciate. He works hard every shift to create scoring chances and he’s not afraid to play physical. Kunitz has racked up 183 hits – third most on the Penguins.

“He plays a physical brand of hockey and that’s what we’re looking for,” Shero said.

Also, Kunitz notched 47 points (22G-25A) with his hard-nosed play in front of the net and in the corners.

“He’s hunting down pucks, goes to the net very hard, is around the net creating chances for himself but also chances for other people coming in behind him to pick up rebounds,” interim head coach Dan Bylsma said. “In the NHL, you don’t score many goals if you don’t go to the blue paint. You see Chris Kunitz in the blue paint.”

You don’t really know you can play at the NHL level until you get the opportunity. I just try to do everything well enough to be out there with some of the good players. - Chris Kunitz
The Penguins have certainly seen Kunutz in the blue paint already. He's scored most of his goals from that point, including three power-play scores.

“He’s a great player,” said Jordan Staal, who skated briefly on a line with Kunitz. “He likes to work in the corners and create hits and create energy. At the same time, he’s really skilled. He sees the ice well. He’s got a great shot and he’s got great puck skills. It’s always nice to play with a player like that.”

Sounds like the kind of player anyone would want to be on a line with. While the Penguins were attracted to Kunitz’s electric style of play, the club was also attracted to the forward because of his rock-solid character.

“I like the way he plays the game - he’s been a leader,” Shero said. “And he has the character that we’re looking for as well.”

That character is evident in the many community events in which Kunitz participates. Before this hockey season started, Kunitz spoke to the Mid Town Boys Club of Chicago about his journey to the NHL. The boys club is associated with Saint Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, where Kunitz and his wife Maureen were married over the summer.

“I told one of the priests that I would come over and talk to them about going to college and just following your dreams and pursuing education,” Kunitz said. “It was just something that was nice to do because I could see that they all love sports, just like I did when I was growing up. I got to take my Stanley Cup ring over for the kids to look at and I signed some autographs. It was something that I wanted to do to help give back to the church in the Chicago area where I spend my summers and where I got married.”

Not only is Chris Kunitz a top-six forward, but he is also a top-notch guy who is thriving in the NHL.

“You don’t really know you can play at the NHL level until you get the opportunity,” Kunitz said. “I just try to do everything well enough to be out there with some of the good players.”
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