Capitals winger Mike Knuble ‘the typical rink rat dad’

November 7, 2011

Although five hours had passed since the Washington Capitals’ final practice drill of the day, Mike Knuble returned to Kettler Capitals Iceplex on a recent evening.

But instead of sharing the ice with 20- and 30-something professionals, Knuble, the Capitals’ oldest player at 39, was surrounded by four dozen rambunctious mites, most of whom barely came up to his belt.

“Over here, over here,” Knuble said in an authoritative tone, pointing at the orange cone one player had missed during a stickhandling drill.

Moments later, Knuble’s focus turned to one player in particular, a 7-year-old wearing a blue helmet with Capitals logos on the sides and No. 22 on the back.

“Cole!” Knuble shouted, shaking his head and smiling, “Not like thaaaat.”

Knuble spends the majority of his week at the Capitals’ practice facility, arriving as early as 8 a.m. on game days and 9 a.m. on practice days. But unlike Alex Ovechkin and the rest of his younger teammates, he’s also there during much of his free time, too. In addition to Cole, Knuble’s other son, 11-year-old Cam, plays for the elite Little Capitals, who, like the real Capitals, call the Ballston rink home.

“You think of the typical rink rat dad,” said Dan Jablonic, the director of youth hockey programs at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Mike is that.”

From a distance, Knuble looked like any of the other 11 coaches on the ice for Cole’s practice. But there were constant reminders that he’s not just like them.

The gaggle of 7- and 8-year-old players monitored his every move as he laced up Cole’s skates in the dimly lit public locker room, which is across the ice from the Capitals’ plush digs. Parents snapped pictures from the stands. Everyone — coaches included — looked on in awe as Knuble blasted through the cones while demonstrating an agility drill. As the hour-long session came to an end, Knuble posed for a group photo.

“You can see how much the kids love it,” said Bill Wiggins, another mite coach whose son, Graham, plays with Cole. “We all appreciate him taking the time.”

Keeping a hectic schedule

Around 7 p.m., Knuble headed to the locker room to take off his skates and get Cole changed out of his pads. He was finally done after a pair of practices and two separate trips to Kettler from his family’s Alexandria home.

“I get home from practice at 1:30,” Knuble said, recounting a typical weekday afternoon during hockey season. “The kids are out of school at 3. We try to do some homework from 3 to 4. We’re in the car around 4:15 and we’re back here until 7, 7:30.

“Eating healthy,” he added, “takes some planning.”

Knuble’s schedule can get hectic. But thanks to Megan, his high-energy, ultra-organized wife, a dry-erase board and a carefully choreographed network of carpools, everyone ends up where they’re supposed to be, even when he’s on the road with the Capitals.

On the meticulously detailed white board, each family member’s daily schedule is color-coded in dry erase marker. Cole’s events are in blue. Cam’s are green. Anna, the Knubles’ soccer- and lacrosse-playing 10-year-old daughter, is pink. Mike and Megan’s schedules are in black. Times are noted. So are driving responsibilities and, in some cases, addresses for away games.

Last month, the board was a mess.

On one Saturday, Mike Knuble had a morning skate and a game against the Detroit Red Wings. That left Megan in charge of shuttling Cole to his 4 p.m. game in Ashburn and ensuring Cam got to his 7 p.m. game at Kettler on time.

When Cole scored in his game, Knuble’s iPhone buzzed in the Capitals’ dressing room at Verizon Center.

“We’re not supposed to be texting before games,” said Knuble, who later assisted on Washington’s winner against the Red Wings in a 7-1 victory. “But I’m quietly checking my phone for updates. When I got that update from Megan, it brought a smile to my face.”

Like many Sundays when the Capitals are home and there is no game, Knuble had the day off.

Well, sort of.

There was no brunch or movie or NFL game for him. At 9 a.m., he was in the driver’s seat of his SUV, his two boys buckled into the back seat. Cam’s Little Capitals were hosting a team from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pa.) Knights. The Knights’ coach, coincidentally, was Knuble’s college roommate when the two played at Michigan.

Wearing a white baseball cap, designer blue jeans, a gray pullover and sneakers, Knuble watched from the balcony, flanked on both sides by other parents. With about four minutes remaining, Megan and Anna joined Knuble and Cole on the overhang.

“We won, 4-1,” Anna reported proudly as Knuble wrapped his arm around her.

No one asked Knuble for an autograph. There was no talk about the Capitals’ big win the night before. The only hockey-related discussion he had was sparked by Brad Martin, who wanted to know what he thought of the Little Capitals’ performance, a 4-3 defeat. Martin’s son, Thomas, has been a teammate of Cam’s for a few years.

“Once people get past the awe factor, he just becomes another one of the dads,” Martin said. “I always tell my son, Mr. Knuble is just another dad. He just has a really cool job.”

Martin’s wife, Sue, added: “It’s pretty motivating for the kids and the parents. They look to him for advice. People always want to know what Mike thinks of their kid’s play. Because he knows.”

Daniel Cole, 11, said he and his Little Capitals teammates try not to talk about the Capitals around Cam.

“We want it to be normal for Cam,” he said. “Not overwhelming.”

After Cam’s game, the Knubles scrambled to their SUVs. Anna had a lacrosse game starting in two hours — in Bethesda — and Cole was due back at Kettler at 1 p.m. for a hockey game. After a brief moment of chaos as the Knubles decided who was taking whom where, they were off.

As it turned out, they never made it back to the rink for Cole’s hockey game. Instead, the whole family met at Anna’s lacrosse game.

And, for one afternoon, they backed off the throttle.

“Sometimes I just don’t want to be split up,” said Megan, who began dating Knuble when they were 15-year-olds near Grand Rapids, Mich. “It was a beautiful Sunday.”

‘Hockey is a lifestyle’

Knuble’s boys have an edge their teammates can only dream about. They receive pep-talks from a 15-year NHL veteran on the way to the rink.

They are debriefed afterward by a man who has scored 270 goals for Detroit, the New York Rangers, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

When the Capitals practice on weekends, it’s not unusual to see the Knuble boys wandering the dressing room or having the rink to themselves afterward.

“It’s really good because I get to learn from my dad and a lot of the pros,” Cam Knuble said. “They can teach me how to do things the way they do them. I can also get a lot of extra ice time after [the Capitals’] practices.”

Cole added: “I like it better than normal because he’s out there.”

They are not the only beneficiaries. Their teammates and coaches also get ample face time with a star who enjoys sharing the knowledge and stories he’s accumulated over the course of 980 games.

“I went in the locker room a little bit early [before a recent practice] to make sure kids were ready, and there was Mike, just telling stories,” Jablonic said. “The kids all had smiles on their faces. They were talking about one of the kid’s sticks. It was nothing too technical. But it’s so invaluable to have a professional that’s played in the league so long in there giving the kids a little bit of advice. That was so cool.”

Being a hockey dad, though, has also benefited Knuble. In the intense world of professional sports he navigates daily, he said it’s a pressure valve. When he’s watching his children’s games, he’s not thinking about his job.

Knuble worked on his conditioning over the summer and reported to camp in top shape. Through the season’s first 12 games, he has two goals and five assists and is tied for fifth on the Capitals in scoring with seven points. He wants to play several more seasons, but he also knows his performance over the next few months could determine whether his career continues in Washington. His one-year, $2 million deal expires in July.

“My career has probably benefited from it because you don’t have just your own hockey” to obsess about, Knuble said. “You’re not just beating yourself up about things. There’s other things to think about.”

The likelihood of a 6 a.m. practice or game also gets him to bed earlier than most of his teammates, all of whom are younger, many of whom are single.

“He will come home instead of going out,” Megan Knuble said. “Maybe it’s because he’s already done that. He’s already gone out. He’s over it. But maybe it does prolong your career. . . . We eat good meals. We go to bed at a decent time.”

That’s a good idea for any professional athlete pushing 40. It’s especially good for one who keeps a schedule as chaotic as Knuble’s.

“Hockey is a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not just showing up and playing games. It separates your family at times. There’s a lot that goes into being a hockey parent.”

As he thumbed through the calendar app on his phone, he looked up and said: “It beats sitting on a couch and trying to nap. I like to be up and going and staying busy.”

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