But just last season, Kunitz found himself on the waiver wire – twice. “It tested my thoughts about whether I would ever make it,” Kunitz said of being waived. “But good things happen sometimes when you get a second chance.”
The Ducks first waived the 27-year-old Regina native last fall and he was picked up by Atlanta on Oct. 4. After two games with the Thrashers, they also waived him. He was then re-claimed by Anaheim on Oct. 18. He went on to finish the season with 19 goals in 67 games.
He has scored 29 goals in his last 50 regular-season games.
“We got lucky, there’s no question about it,” Ducks GM Brian Burke said Thursday. “But I’m also convinced that that little odyssey strengthened his resolve to be an NHL player. We thought he had a very casual training camp last year except for one pre-season game where he scored three goals against San Jose. But other than that, he was not impressive. He’s a hard hitter, he showed none of that. He showed no touch other than the one game, no desperation. So we put him on waivers.”
When the Ducks re-claimed him from Atlanta they sent him to AHL Portland.
“I never knew if I’d ever get called up again but fortunately for me I did like two weeks into my stint in the minors,” Kunitz said Thursday before boarding a flight to Washington, where the Ducks play Friday night. “And then that desperation helped my game and showed the team that I could play.”
“Chris needed that as a reminder that it’s not easy to play in this league,” said Burke. “No one is guaranteed a job in this league. But he has been absolutely terrific since we got him back.”
His 25 points have him on pace for a 70-point season, which would easily eclipse the 41 he put up last season, his first full NHL campaign.
Burke said he likes the versatility Kunitz brings to the Ducks.
“He’s got a high hockey IQ, he’s skilled enough to play on the top line but he’s gritty enough to play on the fourth line,” said Burke. “You can use Kuny in almost any time of the game, if you need a gritty shift, a couple of big hits, whatever.”
Despite a huge senior year at Ferris State university in 2002-03 when he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as top player in U.S. college hockey, Kunitz was passed over in the NHL entry draft. But he doesn’t blame NHL clubs.
“No, I don’t think anybody screwed up, I just think I was more of a late bloomer,” said Kunitz, who is on a two-year deal that pays him US$962,500 this season and $1.15 million in ’07-08. “Maybe I flew under the radar. I mean, I didn’t even know it was goal of mine to play in the NHL until late in my junior year, early senior year.
“Until then, I was just going to go to school, get an education, play some hockey and then go find a regular job. But fortunately things worked out.”
For the longest time Kunitz figured he’d use his marketing degree in business to find a job in the real world.
“I probably would have ended up back in Saskatchewan doing who knows what,” he said.
Instead, he’s playing on a line with Selanne and Andy McDonald and helping the Ducks put together what surely will be a record-setting franchise season.
His family and friends are still getting used to what’s going on.
“Even after last night (when Kunitz had four points in a 4-0 win over Nashville) my mom called and congratulated me on a good game,” said Kunitz, whose parents now live in Calgary. “She told me my dad was getting calls from his friends and had a big smile on his face. It’s kind of surreal sometimes when you hear from people that are just so proud of you and happy for you.”
His buddies have drafted him in their pools.
“A few of them have called me during the season and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got you on my fantasy team. Keep up the good work.’ It’s kind of funny.”