Knuble personifies determination
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Somewhere in a safety deposit box in Michigan sit Mike Knuble's two Stanley Cup rings.
He gets them out to show the kids at his summer hockey camp every year. And his own kids, now ages 7, 10 and 11, like to try them on occasionally, feel their heft and marvel at the diamonds.
But there's a reason these rings do not feature more prominently in Knuble's life and the answer is both simple and reflective of the nature of the man: he doesn't feel he has earned them.
At the time, in 1997 and 1998, Knuble was a member of the Detroit Red Wings. He did not play in the 1997 playoffs and in 1998 played just three postseason games but the Ilitch family, owners of the Wings, bestowed on Knuble and other players rings marking the back-to-back championships regardless. His name appears on the Cup for the 1998 win but for Knuble, "you've got a mental asterisk" when it comes to thinking about those championships, he said.
If anything, the experience of being at least peripherally involved in those championship runs has instilled a burning desire to return to that level again and this time make a difference.
"That's Mike. That's who he is," explained his wife, Megan.
Any player who has ever doubted himself, wondered if it was all worthwhile or had second thoughts about whether he had the will to make himself better should examine Knuble's career track.
Through his first six full NHL seasons, Knuble bounced from Detroit to New York and then to Boston, never topping the 15-goal mark.
Many nights Knuble was a healthy scratch. When he was in the lineup, he often played just a few minutes.
"When I look back, those were stressful years," Megan Knuble recalled.
The two have known each other since they were teens attending high school in Michigan. During those early NHL years when the couple was thinking about starting a family, Knuble wondered how he would support them.
"You just didn't know if you were really going to make it," Megan said. "In the summer, I would watch him just kill himself doing workouts all summer long so he would be ready for training camp. It breaks your heart and he'd come home and he's not in the lineup. There was nothing I could say, nothing I could do."
Knuble would pretend that it didn't bother him but it was obvious that he was torn apart by the way his career was going.
"There is nothing that makes him more miserable than not playing. He just wants to be out there, to be playing with his team," Megan said.
In Boston, he asked for a trade but then-GM Mike O'Connell declined, saying he knew there was more to Knuble than had been revealed.
He was right.
In 2002-03 under head coach Robbie Ftorek, Knuble earned more responsibility and ice time, and responded with 30 goals for the Bruins. He could not know it at the time but that season began a remarkable run of nine straight seasons of 20 or more goals.
"You like to take all the credit," O'Connell, who now works for the Los Angeles Kings, said this week. "But it's all Mike.
"He got his chance and he made the most of it. He's the kind of player and the kind of person you want other guys to see."
Former Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau is asked what he thinks of when he thinks of Mike Knuble.
"The first word that comes to mind is 'professional,'" Boudreau told ESPN.com. "I'll always think of him as one of the best professionals I ever coached.
"Great team player, hard worker. He's a guy, if I'm a player, I would have wanted to be a friend of. He'd be the kind of guy I'd want to hang out with."
He has never been the most gifted of skaters nor the most skilled of puck handlers.
"But he just worked so damn hard and he's a really smart player," Boudreau said. "He knew what he needed to do to get better and he did it."
"Everybody looked up to him. He was the unspoken leader in that room," Boudreau said.
Washington defenseman Dennis Wideman concurs.
"I think guys look to him when they have questions about anything, the guy you ask is Knubs. When he does say something, it's right on point, it's well-timed. He's not the type of guy that's spewing all the time and then all of a sudden you're like, this guy's always yelling. He's well-timed," Wideman said. "He gave us a blast after Game 1 [against the Rangers]. He came in and let us know what he thought and obviously we responded and played well in Game 2. I think that's the way he is. He's been through it all. He's seen it all. When he's talking everybody's listening."
If there is an Everyman quality to Mike Knuble that makes him worthy of admiration, there is also something sobering about his career arc, a reminder of the relentless nature of time and how often the life cycle produces an ending that bears a striking resemblance to the beginning.
Knuble will turn 40 this summer and this season has been a turbulent one both personally and for the franchise.
When Dale Hunter took over for Boudreau as head coach earlier this season, Knuble's ice time and profile dropped. Instead of regular shifts with captain Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom and power-play time, Knuble's ice time dwindled. Then he became a healthy scratch.
You might think at this point in his career and given the success he's had that Knuble would be Zen about such matters.
He scored 24 goals in 79 games last season and coming into this season was expecting his role on the team to stay the same. Instead, Knuble felt like the rug had been pulled out from under him.
He admits to feeling, "a little bit irked," given what he'd brought to the table for this team in recent years.
"But the game is about what's going on right now," said Knuble, who finished with just six regular-season goals.
Knuble once wanted desperately to play long enough so his children would have memories of him as a player. Now they are all old enough to have shared in moments like the 2011 Winter Classic. The downside is that they are old enough to share in his disappointments.
"To see the kids' little faces when Mike wouldn't be playing. They would be so sad," Megan said. "But he never complained. He said, 'I'll just work harder.'"
See, here's the thing, being a healthy scratch at age 39 burned no less than being one 15 years ago.
"He's never lost that crazy, crazy desire to play," Megan said.
Through all of the turmoil of the season, though, the playoffs have opened up another door to Knuble.
After being a healthy scratch to start the postseason, he was reinserted when Backstrom was suspended for a game and hasn't been out since. Playing with Joel Ward and Keith Aucoin for the most part, a hard-working third-line unit that sees about 10 minutes in ice time a night, Knuble and the Caps have proved to be a difficult adversary this spring.
They might not play much but the trio has shined. Ward scored the overtime winner in Game 7 against Boston, set up by a Knuble drive to the net. In Game 2 against the Rangers, Knuble scored an early goal as the Caps have battled back against the top-seed New York Rangers to tie that semifinal series at two games each.
"We don't play a lot and that's sort of an easy crutch to fall back on," Knuble said.
Instead of lamenting the chances they get, though, the unit has made the most of those slender opportunities, like Knuble himself.
"He's a very well-respected guy by everyone," GM George McPhee said, rhyming off virtually everyone in the organization from trainers to coaches to teammates.
"He doesn't have a phony bone in his body," McPhee said. "You hope that by having guys like him around, you hope other guys learn.
"He never sulked, he never pouted, he never complained. He's the kind of guy you'd love to fill your room with. The kind of guy you like having in your life."
So, who knows how this all turns out?
The plucky Caps keep defying the observers and are a best two-out-of-three away from advancing to their first conference final since 1998.
As for Knuble, he will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1.
Would he like to play again?
"I'd like to. I'd absolutely like to. I want them to tear the jersey off me. I want them to have to burn it to get it off me," he said. "It's the greatest job in the world."