Thursday, August 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Chris Kunitz’s name is all over the Stanley Cup. Here’s why

TAMPA — The Stanley Cup is 3 feet tall and weighs about 35 pounds.

Chris Kunitz is 6 feet tall and weighs 192 pounds.

They're brothers.

Tampa Bay wing Kunitz is the only Lightning player to have won the Stanley Cup.

He is the only active NHL player to have lifted the Cup four times.

And take it from him.

"It never gets old," Kunitz said.

The guy's name is all over hockey's cherished prize. Winning the Cup is what he does. Kunitz won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. He won it with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. And he won it with Pittsburgh the past two seasons before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent.

His teammates and coaches figure the 38-year-old has brought some Cup mojo with him. This can't be puck luck, though surely, in Kunitz's case, it probably has had something to do with Aug. 7, 1987 — the day Sidney Crosby was born. But there has to be more to it than that. Kunitz is master of the two-months-long forced march. He knows the way. He's like a trail of bread crumbs.

Kunitz has stood with Stanley on the wheat plains of his native Saskatchewan, with his wife, Maureen, and their three children. Family portrait. Kunitz has taken Stanley to his hometown, Regina, to his high school. He has drunk champagne from the Cup. He and his kids, Zachary, Payton and Aubrey, have eaten cereal out of the Cup.

The Lightning is six wins from Stanley. True, so are the Capitals, but it doesn't feel that way after the Lightning won 4-2 in Game 4 on Thursday night to tie the Eastern Conference final.

Kunitz might be part of another run.

It's what he does.

There must be a constant running through this.

There is.

"Winning," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's contagious with guys who have done it before. They just seem to keep doing it. He's raised (the Cup) four times. He's raised it back to back. He's changed teams, and he finds himself in the conference final again. It's got to be a little more than a coincidence. Being around him for a full year, I can see why. His leadership in the room, kind of that quiet calm he carries himself with. He seems to rise to the occasion when you need him the most."

In Kunitz's 14 NHL seasons, after not being drafted into the league, he has played in 175 playoff games. He has taken on many guises. He has been part of top lines with some of the world's best players, including Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Just last season, Kunitz scored a Game 7 overtime winner to beat the Ottawa Senators and win the Eastern Conference final. He assisted on the winning goal when the Penguins beat the Nashville Predators to win the Cup last year.

It's different in Tampa Bay. Kunitz doesn't have a point in the Lightning's 14 playoff games. He had 13 goals and 29 points during the season. He plays on the Lightning's grinding fourth line, with Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette. But don't think these muckers haven't mattered.

Thursday, in Game 4, when Paquette went down hard after being checked by Washington's Tom Wilson, Kunitz responded by crunching T.J. Oshie. He also took down Wilson. You do what it takes when you're chasing Stanley.

"In my mind, I've always been a grinder," Kunitz said. "I try to fit in."

He learned a long time ago that in the playoffs it takes the village. He thinks that's what his Cup teams have in common.

"It's a true team trophy," Kunitz said. "When you look back on the teams you win with, they become more than teammates. They become like family almost. You've done it together, and it's special, and the long road along the way makes it special.

"You weren't going to win it because one guy was going to stand out. It's about unsung guys going out to create the headway, the momentum, like blocking a shot or making a hit, things that keep you energized in a long series."

• • •

Stanley put its hooks in Kunitz early. He won the Cup hundreds of times, every night, playing street hockey with his brothers. He first saw the Cup when his family made the required Canadian pilgrimage across the provinces to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Kunitz never touched the Cup until he won it.

He might be last in the league at strutting. He doesn't talk about his Cup moments with Lightning teammates unless he is asked. Hockey players are a superstitious breed.

Callahan, who has come close to the Cup over the years, asks.
To him, Kunitz is a storehouse, a veritable Library of Congress.

"We talk about it," Callahan said. "I ask him what was it like in your hands, in your hometown. It puts a smile on my face thinking about it. I've been close. This is my fifth conference final. I remember talking to Brad Richards about winning a Cup in Tampa after he came to the Rangers, him showing pictures, talking about the parade. Some guys know."

• • •

Kunitz has spent days with the Cup all over the continent. "It's almost like throwing a wedding reception every time you go somewhere," he said. His best memories are the simplest ones. Like standing with his dad, Marvin, after winning the first Cup in Anaheim. Holding his oldest child, Zachary, who was born on the first day of the 2009 playoffs and who was just 2 months old when his father won the Cup for a second time. Skating around the ice with his youngest child, Aubrey, after the Penguins beat the Predators.

"All the kids have sat in the Cup as babies," he said.

To him, there's never an "I" in Stanley Cup.

"It's almost the complete opposite," Kunitz said. "It's the most team-worthy trophy. If there are 20 guys on the ice, it takes 24 guys. Everyone is going to fill in somewhere. Everybody is going to have an impact on the season or on a teammate at one point. It might not always be the typical guys. It's usually not. Everybody does something to make the team better. Usually when you win the Cup, that's the reason why."

Lightning defenseman Chris Kunitz enjoyed his downtime with the Stanley Cup last summer, celebrating with his children. (Courtesy of HHOFarchives)

"Guys migrate to him," Cooper said of Kunitz. "He's not the captain of our team. Steven Stamkos is the captain of our team. But he needs someone to lean on as well. And Kunitz is one of those guys."

It's that time of year.

"You never take it for granted," Kunitz said. "You want to win it again so you can do the 400 things you didn't do with it the last time."

It's not just about lifting the Cup.

"It's about the getting there," Kunitz said.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

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