The Anaheim Ducks forward was back in the lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night after missing seven games with a broken right hand.
Kunitz suffered the injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference final against Detroit and was told afterwards that his season was likely done.
Getting the chance to play in the Stanley Cup after that is a dream come true for the 27-year-old from Regina.
“It’s been painful watching,” Kunitz said. “It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life . . .
“From the initial shock of them telling me that the season was going to be over, it’s a great relief.”
When asked about the injury during this series, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle didn’t sound like someone who expected to see Kunitz back in his lineup.
The turning point for him came on Friday night when he spoke to the team doctor.
“The last question we asked the doctor is that if this was your son, would you allow him to play? And the answer, obviously, was yes,” said Carlyle.
Kunitz replaced Drew Miller in the lineup.
News of his return was received well in the Ducks dressing room prior to the game.
“It’s a big boost for us,” said teammate Teemu Selanne. “He’s a big part of our team. We need everybody out there. We have played a year and a half together. It always helps when you play with guys who know each other really well. He’s physical, he’s got speed. He’s unbelievable.”
Kunitz’s right hand appeared to still be a bit swollen earlier in the day and he said he expected it to be a “little tight” during the game.
Still, he wasn’t worried that it would become something the Ottawa players would target.
“If it was going to be that easy to hurt or something, I wouldn’t be out there,” said Kunitz. “It’s a physical game, but I don’t think anyone’s going to go out of their way.”
Carlyle’s main concern about inserting Kunitz back into the lineup was conditioning even though Kunitz had spent the past couple weeks working out on a stationary bike before returning to practice a few days ago.
“He’s worked hard off ice, but this is not mid-season, this is the Stanley Cup final,” said Carlyle. “It will be a raucous atmosphere and the body can be drained in a hurry.”
Kunitz felt ready for it. He was a key contributor during the regular season with 25 goals and 60 points, and is one of the reasons Anaheim has made it this far.
“He’s been a top line left-winger for our group,” said Carlyle. “He’s the type of individual that has played more of the dirty work, as you would call it. He’s been first on the forecheck a lot times and he’s a banger.
“He plays hard for his teammates and they respect his work ethic.”