- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2011

Mike Knuble defies the traditional laws of hockey. Players aren’t supposed to score 20 goals in a season for the first time at age 30 and then do it eight more times.

But that has been life for Knuble, who struggled to find a place in the NHL for so long before transforming into one of the most consistent players in the past decade.

“It was like night and day,” he said. “I’ve lived two different careers throughout all this.”

Two different careers and winding paths that led Knuble to Tuesday, when he’s set to play his 1,000th NHL game as the Washington Capitals face the Nashville Predators. Knuble once wondered if he would make the lockout and 400 games — a benchmark for the league’s pension plan — but his unique road to this milestone proves that sometimes all a good player needs to be a great one is opportunity.

Being ‘worthy’

The Detroit Red Wings took Knuble with the 71st pick in the 1991 draft knowing he could score. In three subsequent seasons at the University of Michigan, he scored 96 goals, but by the time he turned pro the Red Wings had developed into a perennial power.

With the likes of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov leading the way, Detroit had a logjam of veteran forwards, so opportunities were short for Knuble.

“He came up at a tough time because we had a strong, strong team. It’s not easy for guys to break in,” legendary coach Scotty Bowman said in a phone interview last week. “He was really good coming off the wing and picking the far corner. I liked his style and everything. The unfortunate part is we had so many guys ahead of him.”

Knuble recalled his first game, March 26, 1997 against the Colorado Avalanche, when he got a taste of the rivalry in the form of brawls and a goalie fight. And his first goal, which came on a Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens — a dream scenario for the kid born in Toronto.

While Knuble won a Stanley Cup as a bit player for the Red Wings in 1998, it was a “battle” to carve out a niche in the NHL.

“You spend the first four or five years of your career trying to lock up a spot in the league and try to prove to everybody that you can play and that you’re worthy of them getting you another contract and worthy of them investing time and energy into you,” Knuble said.

It took a trade to the New York Rangers to open up a permanent spot for Knuble, and he scored 15 goals in 82 games in 1998-99 before a Broadway spending spree that included Theo Fleury meant a return to a reduced role.

“Suddenly you kind of got buried,” Knuble said. “You kind of got knocked back down.”

The Rangers dealt him to the Boston Bruins for Rob DiMaio, leading to a curious response from the man going to New York.

“Rob DiMaio, who I was traded for, they told him who he got traded for,” Knuble recalled. “They said my name and he said, ‘Who else?’ They were like, ‘No, that’s it, Rob. Sorry.’ Straight up.”

DiMaio, who works as a scout for the St. Louis Blues, doesn’t remember saying that — perhaps out of respect for Knuble, who made the trade very worthwhile for the Bruins.

Opportunity at last

It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg, with players and coaches disagreeing on what comes first.

“I think as a player you can go in a cycle with your coach. You can say, ‘Well, give me the opportunity and I’ll play well.’ And the coach says, ‘Well, play well, and I’ll give you the opportunity,’ ” Knuble said. “You just go around in a circle like that.”

After a couple of nondescript seasons, an injury to Sergei Samsonov opened up a top-line spot for Knuble, who got to play alongside Joe Thornton and Glen Murray. It changed his career.

In 2002-03, he scored 30 goals and added 29 assists, a breakthrough season that Knuble is reminded of every summer when he goes home to Michigan and drives the Jeep he got as a result of Bruins fans voting him the winner of team’s “7th player” award.

“I think he would tell anybody that he wasn’t the most skilled guy, but he found his niche when he got traded to Boston and he played with Joe,” DiMaio said. “I think that made him realize what type of player he really could be — that power forward guy that gets to the right spots, that has a good knack to score and is willing to take punishment in order to do it.”

Knuble repeatedly has said that he’s not a great player but instead a guy who got to complement great players along the way. He learned from older Red Wings teammates how to work hard and prepare for games and from Adam Graves and John MacLean how to score the kind of goals around the net that have become his forte.

But he also credited his eight consecutive 20-goal seasons and first-line success to coaches and teammates putting him in the right situations.

“I guess I never really lost confidence as a player,” he said. “But things lined up, and you take off from there.”

‘So many things have to go right’

Moving on to the Philadelphia Flyers and then the Capitals, Knuble excelled playing with the likes of Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But to reach 1,000 games, health has to be a major factor.

Knuble pointed out that all his injuries came above the waist — over a handful of repairs here and there but nothing bad enough to derail his career.

“You look at all the players who ended prematurely, whether it was a knee, a shoulder or something,” Knuble said. “So many things have to go right to be around that long. I’m very thankful for that. I appreciate it. I’m very aware of it. I’ve been around long enough where you can appreciate that.”

That’s the perspective of a 39-year-old who has seen and done a lot in this game, but not one who sounds ready to step away. His contract with the Caps — extended last spring — expires at the end of this season, but Knuble said his body feels good and he’d love to play another year.

Even though retirement isn’t in his plans, Knuble reaching 1,000-game mark is a chance to reflect on a career that for so long seemed to be going nowhere. All it took for that to change was opportunity.

“As a young kid, you’re just so far down the road and going through it all,” Knuble said. “I do appreciate it, and I understand it. It’s been a good road. It’s been a fun road.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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