By Kirk Luedeke
Mike Knuble is back for a third season with the Washington Capitals, but he embraces the chance to discuss his former club’s Stanley Cup championship and the only two of his Boston Bruins teammates still with the team: Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas.
When the Caps exited the 2011 postseason in the second round, Knuble turned his attention to his old team, who gutted out the championship with two down-to-the-wire seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks.
“I think that in the final, everyone was getting ready to just hand it to Vancouver in a walkaway– that it was going to be an easy series,” Knuble says. “I don’t know if it was when Patrice (Bergeron) got bit (by Alexandre Burrows) or the hit on (Nathan) Horton, but they just seemed to get really mad all of the sudden. I think it was pretty obvious and I felt like they pushed back and pushed Vancouver out of the series. It was pretty impressive to watch.”
Knuble was 31 and just coming off his first 30-goal campaign with the B’s as the club’s 7th Player Award winner in 2003 when the teenage Bergeron arrived in Boston as the 45th overall pick that previous June. Whatever Knuble might have expected from the rookie, he admitted to being surprised at how the Quebec native established himself right out of the gate.
“He was in the league at 18. He came in just under the radar- – he was a pick that summer I think,” Knuble says of Bergeron. “He was added to the training camp roster and all of the sudden, we’re a few games into the preseason, and he’s playing every one of them.
“Marty Lapointe took him in and guided him through his first year. Patrice was just steady all year and I think they were waiting for him to break down and slow down and come down a little bit, but he never did.”
Knuble left Boston for Philadelphia as a free agent in 2004 when the Bruins refused to tender offers to any of its veterans on expiring deals in anticipation of the lockout and new rules that didn’t come to fruition. He was in Boston on the October, 2007 night when then-Flyer Randy Jones drove Bergeron headfirst into the TD Garden boards, costing the young veteran the remainder of the season with a severe concussion and putting his career in jeopardy.
“I was playing in Philly and he got hit there and it ended up being a lot longer process (to be an NHL star) than I think anybody anticipated,” says Knuble. “And I think for him, it was a lot longer than he anticipated and he’s been the man there for a while. He was already a great player before he got hit and he hasn’t really missed a beat since he came back. “
These days, Knuble can only smile and shake his head when asked about Bergeron and what makes him one of Boston’s core players and stars.
“I just remember him being very slippery; it was hard to knock him off the puck,” he said. “He didn’t have the hardest shot, wasn’t the fastest skater, wasn’t the biggest guy- he was 18- but he was just slippery with the puck and he slipped through everyone with it. He was comfortable from the start, so he was just quietly flying under the radar, but never slowed down.”
When the subject switches to the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and playoff MVP, there’s another shake of the head and chuckle from Knuble. Although his actual NHL ice time with Thomas was only limited to a few games during the 2002-03 season, he saw plenty of the netminder in training camps and practices.
“At the time, he was so unorthodox,” says Knuble, trying to explain why it took so long for Thomas to establish himself as an NHL superstar. “I don’t think anyone was going to stand behind that style. It probably scared the hell out of everybody as far as their jobs went, if they were going to back this guy or not. But, they kept bringing him back, bringing him back.
“He battles so hard and I think one thing you know is that he’s trying on every shot and until the puck officially crosses the line, and even then, he’s still trying to hide it. You know, if he can grab it before it’s all the way over the line, he’s still going to go for it.”
Thomas and Knuble are kindred spirits. Like Thomas, Knuble spent a good amount of time in the press box in Boston as a bit part and fourth-liner under Mike Keenan and Robbie Ftorek until an injury to Sergei Samsonov during the ’02-03 season forced the Bruins to make Knuble a full-time player. Like Thomas has done in Boston since given his first real opportunity to play in the highest level back in 2006, Knuble seized his chance, scoring 30 goals on Joe Thornton’s line and becoming one of the team’s most respected veterans in the pre-lockout years.
“He’s earned everything he’s gotten,” Knuble says of Thomas. “It’s been a long road. He’s one of those guys whose post-30 success has been phenomenal. I guess goaltenders come into their age a little later, but I have to give him credit sticking with it and keeping the faith and keep battling and battling until he got his chance to run with it.”
At one time a member of Boston’s “700-pound line” with Thornton and Glen Murray, Knuble still remembers who it was that christened the unit: Bruins head coach Claude Julien, back when he was Montreal’s bench boss.
“He’s been around,” Knuble says when reminded of Julien’s pre-Boston days. “Nobody second-guesses his knowledge. He’s got some good parts, even minus Marc Savard, you start with (Zdeno) Chara on the back end and Timmy in goal and it’s a great situation to be around and great situation to be the coach. I think the players respond to him and I think they like him as a coach.”
Having won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 1998, Knuble understands what the current Bruins and his two old pals are going through. He’s glad for them, but at age 39, throws out one last sage observation before moving away from his stall to get on with his day.
“Enjoy every moment of being a champion,” he said. “The Stanley Cup is so hard to win. But, I’m very happy for those guys that they were able to do it.”