NAHL and U-M alum Mike Knuble is rising star in NHL

By Derek Berry

You might call Grand Rapids native Mike Knuble a late bloomer. Knuble
got a late start in hockey, learning a lot at the high school level and
then jumping right into the North American Hockey League. Knuble only
needed one year in the NAHL before moving on to the University of
Michigan, where he had an outstanding four years.

The big forward spent one season in Kalamazoo and there were a number
of reasons why he will always value what he learned there.

Besides the exposure and the close proximity to home, Knuble got to
learn a lot more about the game he loves.

“It (the NAHL) really forced you to skate or you couldn’t keep up,”
said Knuble. “It was an excellent step for me in my career because it
really got me involved in the game more.”

Not that Knuble wasn’t already involved or looked at and drooled over
by several scouts and top college hockey schools looking at this big,
young forward with such size, speed and quickness that your head would
spin. But, Knuble says the talent level from high school up to the NAHL
was significant.

“I played with guys like Brian Holzinger, Brian Rolston, and Rob
Valicevic, so I learned a lot real fast,” he says. “And our coach, Paul
Pickard, worked us very hard too.”

Knuble says he worked so hard while in Kalamazoo under Pickard’s
conditioning program, (which included running laps and intense skating)
that he lost weight before he arrived on the scene at U-M.

It was during that year in the NAHL that U-M’s hockey program took a
liking to Knuble. Wolverines assistant coach Billy Powers says it was
immediately obvious that Knuble was a goal scorer who could complement
some other notable scorers – namely Brendan Morrison and Brian Wiseman –
very well.

“He (Knuble) had a great knack for getting goals scored,” said Powers.
“He took a little longer to develop, but he had a great snap shot and
made things happen around the net.”

Powers says that Knuble needed to work on his skating and once he did,
that improved his opportunities on the team and made him a dominant
player.

“He had to get used to the pace of college hockey right away,” says
Powers. “Our competitiveness really helped him. He’s a classic story
of where the big size/big body kid used his size and gifts that he had,
to his advantage.”

Knuble recalls how much he learned in his first college game, where the
transformation from juniors to college began and all that he learned in
the NAHL flashed back before his eyes.

“I noticed immediately that the game moved even faster,” says Knuble.
“My first game was at MSU and for a first game that was pretty tough.”

He says he was so nervous and intense that he even ran into one of his
own teammates.

But, that nervousness didn’t last long as Knuble found a niche and
became a dangerous playmaker that every opponent had to keep their eyes
on.

Coach Powers really believes it was that year in the NAHL, under the
intense training, that really propelled Knuble to greatness.

“That year in Kalamazoo put Mike on the map,” says Powers. “The NAHL
helped him dramatically in making that transition from high school to
the junior level.”

Powers also says Knuble and many of the others that have come out of
the NAHL and played college hockey owe it all to the NAHL’s coaching and
competition.

“I think the coaching is second to none,” the U-M assistant said. “You
can go up and down the list of players, particularly here at Michigan,
guys like Mike or Dale Rominski come to mind. Some didn’t always go on
past the college level to be successful like Mike, but it still makes a
big impact on those players.”

After nearly getting to the NCAA championship game two times with U-M,
Knuble moved on to the big time, where he started in the Detroit Red
Wings organization, playing for its top farm club at the time,
Adirondack.

Where Knuble had to get used to books and classes again after coming
out of the NAHL and attending U-M, he then had to make a completely
different readjustment…life as a professional player.

“Once you are there, all of a sudden you are paid to play. It’s a
business and you are in it for yourself,” says Knuble. “There’s a lot
more on the line. You’re a new guy again and you make 20 new friends.”

Even in college, there was still some room for making errors and
learning from mistakes. Although, it was not advisable to do that under
a coaching great such as U-M head coach Red Berenson, it was even worse
to do that under NHL coaching great and Red Wings head coach Scotty
Bowman.

“The one thing a young player notices about the NHL right away, is that
if you mess up, the potential is much greater for someone to finish up
and you are in trouble,” says Knuble. “On this level, you have to be
and are expected to be responsible for your position.”

And Knuble got to learn with a better-than-average group…the 1997-98
Stanley Cup champions.

Knuble says he felt very lucky to be involved at such a young age with
those great Red Wings teams.

“Being with that second team that won the Cup and getting my name on it
was an experience I can’t describe,” he says. “At the time, I really
took it for granted.”

Although Knuble continues to improve as a player, he has not
necessarily been on some of the best teams. But, he’s had some good
experiences and played with some great ones, as in the Great One
himself.

When Knuble was traded by the Wings to the New York Rangers, he wound
up playing in the final season of Wayne Gretzky’s career and Number 99’s
teammate during his grand finale.

“He was my hero growing up and he’s such a classy guy,” says Knuble.
“To see him and then play with him was something else.”

A life full of hockey experiences has greeted this young NAHL alum, who
has played for some coaching greats and played with some legends.