TAMPA – It was the late spring of 2007, days after a much younger Chris Kunitz lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time. He found himself wondering if he would ever be in that position again. Hoping, really.
"For sure," he said. "It's almost a surprise every time you get to do it. You're thrilled beyond belief you can accomplish something as a team."
Kunitz, 38, helped the Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup title. Two years later he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he helped the Penguins win one Cup in 2009, then another in 2016 and a third last season.
Kunitz is the only active player to have won four Cups, a stat not lost on Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman when he signed Kunitz to a one-year deal in the offseason.
"That's why Steve shines in a lot of these areas is his ability to find out what the team needs and goes out and gets it," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "I truly believe Kunitz was one of those guys that we probably weren't banking on to play 20 minutes a night but was going to help us leadership-wise, stability-wise and also grit-wise. Those little things he brings to the table has certainly paid off."
Kunitz is a fourth-line left wing who is no longer looked at as a goal-scorer, though the Lightning would readily take one.
He is a leader in a dressing room filled with leaders, filled with players who have reached the Stanley Cup finals. Kunitz, though, is the only one to have his name on the Cup. That it appears four times matters.
"A lot of our team has been (to the finals) before, we just haven't gotten over the top, and he's one guy that has," Cooper said. "Just to have that stabling influence of seeing multiple different situations arise that he's been a part of and the way he's handled it so well is good to have in the room."
For Kunitz, the postseason is the best time of year. The physical strain of a game every other night, the mental grind of dealing with the turns each series takes when you win and when you lose, the pain, the sacrifice — those are to be embraced, because the payoff lasts forever.
"Usually when you look back on it (when you win the Cup), it's how much fun you had being around a group of guys and all the experiences you had. Those are the things you remember," Kunitz said. "The years you don't get that far get lost in the shuffle. But you definitely remember the dinners you had or certain guys winning games and the big goals that help get you through the playoffs."
Big goals? Kunitz scored in double overtime of Game 7 during last year's conference finals against Ottawa. Kunitz remembers that, sure, but he also remembers the off nights on the road when he played cards in the hotel suite the Penguins booked when he and his teammates watched the other playoff games.
Kunitz has been in the NHL since 2003-04. He has former teammates playing in nearly every series.
Then there are the Penguins, who are trying to become the first team to three-peat since the Islanders won four straight in the early 1980s.
The Penguins might have to go through the Lightning to do that, providing both teams advance to the conference finals.
But that is looking ahead. That is one thing Kunitz knows you do not do in the playoffs.
He might tell his teammates that if he were the type to speak in front of the group. Two things: His teammates already know, and Kunitz is not one to speak in front of the group.
"I'm not the guy who stands in front of the room and lectures somebody or gives a rah-rah speech," Kunitz said. "But hopefully just understanding the game and how you've won in the past and giving some insight, those are things that hopefully our team can take that next step and win another one."
That might be what the Lightning needed the most. Someone who knows the way to the top.
"Whatever it takes to win that night, you have to be able to do," Kunitz aid. "It's the best time in hockey to be one of the few teams playing and everyone else is watching."
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50